An Interview with Ayad Akhtar

I first encountered the script for Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning play Disgraced in the pages of American Theatre magazine. I was amazed by the writing: tight and structured yet incendiary and thought-provoking in every line of dialogue. In each subsequent encounter with his work – his novel American Dervish; his play The Who and The What (which ran at Lincoln Center Theatre in the spring of 2014; the Broadway production of Disgraced; and most recently the New York Theatre Workshop run of his latest play The Invisible Hand – I’ve been continually impressed by his exploration of identity, religion, and culture – both Muslim and American. 

In an article for The Jewish Week, I wrote about the illuminating Jewish characters that surprisingly appear in Ahktar’s stories, as well as the myriad influences on his work. Below are excerpts from our conversation.

When I walked out of The Who and the What this spring, I remember feeling very grateful that there’s a playwright who can write about religious people without shrinking them. I’ve seen versions of Afzal [the Muslim father in the play] within my own community. He was very recognizable.


Well, right. That’s the quintessential Jewish parent figure in theater.  

There’s a quote from William Faulker that writers often reference: to write, you need experience, observation, and imagination, but sometimes one can take the place of the others. How do you think those three are comprised in your work?

The characters in my work are taken from the observation of life and experience, I mean, certainly American Dervish is a version of my family. But I also want to tell a good story. How I draw from observation and experience has to do with what I want to do imaginatively. What I’m interested in is the movement from one point to another and the recognitions that happen along that path. That, to me, is the definition of drama. So what that requires are strong events, sometimes stronger than actually happen in life.

It’s also very clear that structure is at work. 

With Disgraced, I can tell you that’s what I was thinking about. I don’t know that it comes anywhere close, but I’m gonna make a comparison to Oedipus Rex, which is the purest dramatic structure there is. I don’t think Disgraced has that, but it’s trying to get there. Now we think of tragedy [in drama] as an enobling form whereas I think for the Greeks it was more of a visceral form. At Disgraced, the audience is very vocal, and that sense of participation is important to the physical experience that the audience is having.  

The night that I saw it, it almost seemed at the curtain call that the audience was clapping in slow motion, like they were physically still in the play. There’s so much packed into the show that it’s almost impossible to process it all upon leaving the theater.

Yeah, [they’re thinking] “What was that? That was a ride into a concrete median.” (laughs) 

I’m interested in how you first came across Jewish writers. I know your work has been impacted by them.

I had a middle school teacher and she gave us a [reading] list, and I for whatever reason chose The Chosen. I was enraptured. I felt like I had found my own people. They had all the same divisions in the community and the concerns with being holy and being righteous, and how that brought people into conflict and how it brought them happiness. I even got the texture of their life. And this is about Chasidic Jews in Brooklyn, not about a suburban kid in Milwaukee [where Akhtar grew up]. But somehow it was very familiar.  

Then I read The Promise and My Name is Asher Lev. [Potok] was the first writer I read all his books. I remember reading My Name is Asher Lev and getting to the end where [Asher] walks out of the gallery, and I thought, “This is my life.” I think I had some innate sense even before I even had a thought that I would become an artist that there was this division between the old world and my own life that that was irreconcilable and it was headed for some kind of rupture. 

Even though your parents were not active Mosque-goers.

My mom was devotional without being rigid about it. My dad became militantly…he’s basically like Amir [in Disgraced] now. He didn’t become that way until I got to college. Before that, he was more tolerant of it. But my mother’s sister was particularly devout and I had a close relationship with her. And I spent a lot of time around extended family, all of whom had varying gradations with identification with being good Muslims. That was one of the central questions of my childhood: how to be a good Muslim.

I college, I can’t remember how I came across Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, but it was the same sense of recognition in a different way. It was the refined literary me having the experience I had with Chaim Potok. And then the real experience in college was Woody Allen. Everything from “Love and Death” to “Husbands and Wives”.

Why do you think there’s so little in theater about religion? Is it as simple as audiences tend to be irreligious?

Well, maybe. I think the prevailing dramaturgical paradigms privilege certain subject matter. Directness is not as valued, and earnestness is not as valued. And issues of faith require earnest, direct technique. Because if you want to write about it, you have to find a different Archimedean point than ironic detachment.  

I think that faith is one of the important themes in American life, but it’s hard to find major writers writing about it. I mean even Chaim Potok – people do not speak of him in the same breath as the Roths and the Bellows. And Roth has made a career of writing in opposition to faith.

The character Isaac in Disgraced feels accessible to secular Jews – he intermarries, he eats pork – but he still seems to feel a personal attack when he’s called out as being a Jew. So there’s something visceral there. Nathan in American Dervish does as well, though he’s very willing to convert to Islam, something Jewish audiences might find less relatable.  

There was a template for Nathan in my own life. It’s a very odd situation for a Muslim artist to have found most of his inspiration and his roadmap from Jewish American artists. I’m always grappling with that conundrum. It’s a different kind of anxiety of influence. How much of this is really mine and how much is not mine, and how much of it can I make mine. So I think Nathan is the first fully fleshed-out attempt at that kind of internal dialogue. There will ideally, hopefully, be a sequel to American Dervish that will develop this further: Hayat [the story’s main character] will find his way back to Islam by working with a Kabbalistic master. So it’s this circuitous route.

Islam is really a gloss on Judaism. The Quran is in many ways a secondary source commenting on the Old Testament and then reworking sections. So when you look at it from the point of view of Harold Bloom, for example, we’re talking about Mohammed’s anxiety of influence with regard to Moses. And to make himself into a better Moses.  

While the The Invisible Hand and your 2005 film “The War Within” are about terrorists plots, most of your recent work – Disgraced, The Who and the What, and American Dervish – offer very different critiques of Islam, based more on the text of the Quran.  

All three are challenges to Quranic interpretation. 

And people have asked you in interviews if you’re concerned about reflecting a negative image of Islam. But the characters in most of your work are not talking about extremism or terrorism, per se. They just don’t want to feel diminished by religion.

I feel that Amir is grappling fundamentally with how to fit in. The idea that W.E.B. Du Bois has about double consciousness: the view a minority has of the majority’s perspective on it. I think that people expect me to be writing more from a place of double consciousness than I am. I don’t suffer from double consciousness. My experience is my experience…and I just write from that place. And then I find myself in this peculiar situation where people are reading my work and looking for clues to the quandary of double consciousness which is not present in American Dervish at all. It is there is Disgraced but in an unusual way because it’s not like I’m siding with Amir over the other characters.

Do you wonder how many people leave the theater after Disgraced ends and say, “So, is he saying that Islam is bad?”

I think it’s an invariable question. If you really sit with the experience you have, I don’t know how you can take Amir’s side and discount everything that has made you complicit with his downfall if you’re not Muslim. It feels like a sledgehammer but I think there’s a lot of subtlety there.  

If Amir had been upfront with his colleagues early on, would it have mattered that he was Muslim? I don’t imagine that it would have.

Yeah, it might not have. And that’s another dilemma. The concern that internal paranoia within the Muslim community might be exacerbating the situation.  

What is your feeling about Muslim Americans who are outspoken advocates, like Reza Aslan who is a frequent commentator on CNN?

That’s part of our cultural consciousness – that constant chatter, so if there isn’t somebody representing that pole... But I don’t feel that that’s an artistic project, it’s a public relations project. So a lot of people might think, “I heard about this guy with a weird name who won a Pulitzer. He’s into Muslim stuff. I guess we’ll find out that Muslims are good people.” That somehow an artistic project will modify in a positive way what they think. So, I love Reza, but that’s a different thing. 

Amir and Abe are complex and troubled Muslim characters, certainly more so than Hayat and Mina [characters from American Dervish] and the family in The Who and the What who are more lovable characters.

Somebody once told me, “I think your play is a litmus test. It’s telling an audience member where they are on the spectrum of their own tribal identifications.” I think that’s true. I don’t know that I have a message. I think there are certain meanings that are embedded in the text, but I don’t think you can come away thinking anything specific other than an interrogation of your own relationship to tribalism.

As a final question, I’m curious about the character of Emily, specifically her last lines. Was her interest in Islamic art truly sincere, or was it an outgrowth of being married to someone Muslim and wanting to find beauty in his culture? It seemed to raise a larger theme of being fascinated with cultures outside of your own experience, like the way you illuminate Jewish characters. Like Gershwin doing Porgy and Bess. What is your thought about portraying subject matter outside of your experience?

I think Emily’s last lines express the Western, non-Muslim frustration with the Muslim world which is something that you only see growing, tragically. That even those who wish to find meaning and beauty are having difficulty today. Emily compassionately walks away. The second part of your question is beautiful, I don’t know that I have an answer to it. I think I’m very conscious of the ways in which I can write about things that are not my experience or my place to write about. I’m sensitive to the boundaries. If I feel confident I’ll write about it. I also show my writing to a lot of people, so I get a lot of feedback.

It seems like you’re an avid rewriter.

I am. The inspiration comes in rewriting.


photo credit: Nina Subin

Posted on January 15, 2015 .

Voices from a Changing Theater J

In the fall of 2011, I visited Theater J in Washington DC to interview artistic director Ari Roth and attend a reading for the Voices from a Changing Middle East festival as part of an article I was writing for American Theatre magazine. Around that time, a fringe pro-Israel activist group known as COPMA (Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art) had made a few headlines by protesting Theater J, asserting that the theater and the Voices festival in particular put forth anti-Israel views. COPMA’S actions weren’t a pervasive threat to Roth’s position, per se, but they did arouse some worry among the staff and board of the DCJCC (the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, which is home to Theater J), especially when COPMA called upon major foundations to withdraw their financial support. The JCC’s new CEO, Carole Zawatsky, began to mediate with members of COPMA with the hope of easing tensions.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but all of these incidents would lead directly to Roth’s being fired a few days ago. The decision is upsetting on a few levels. Roth was Theater J’s visionary. Beyond creating art, he was genuinely interested in fostering productive dialogue. When he produced Return to Haifa, a play written by an Israeli writer that focused on the complications involved in Israel’s founding in 1948, he hosted a post-show talkback every night of the production. As he recalls, “Every talkback was good. Some nights, it was sublime.” Heated conversation never roiled him. He wanted to present theater in order to intrigue, excite, and engage audiences. The widespread response across the arts world following his firing – including an open letter to the DCJCC from artistic directors of theaters across the country – has expressed the danger in suppressing creativity freedom.

To be sure, Theater J never had full creative freedom. For an arts company to exist inside a community organization is to be beholden to the latter’s standards, in this case to produce plays that do not in any substantive way criticize Israel. Most theater companies don’t have to look over their shoulder in that way. It's because the JCC has to accommodate its board members and funders – many of whom likely hold right-wing views on Israel – that Theater J’s Voices festival seemed problematic (the yearly festival featured work by Palestinian writers and by Israeli writers who wrote from a left-wing perspective).

The larger issue as I see it is that it is increasingly difficult to be liberal and pro-Israel. Many right-wing Jews would disagree with me on this, but I believe Roth is deeply supportive of Israel. Choosing plays that grapple with how Israel was founded or that offer a empathetic viewpoint on a Palestinian character do not amount to anti-Israel sentiments. It's very disheartening that right-wing support of Israel (unyielding approval for every military action, a startling lack of sympathy for Palestinians who suffer) is often viewed as the only valid way to support Israel. And conversely that siding with liberals on social and economic issues means rejecting Israel entirely. 

And still, I'm sympathetic to the tight position that JCC's staff and board found themselves in. I grew up going to that JCC and have a lot of positive memories there. While I don’t agree with their decision, I do appreciate how hard it must be for a religious organization to balance opposing views. Roth may embrace controversial subjects, but the JCC understandably prefers to keep things calm. Of course, in their effort to do so, they may have damaged Theater J irrevocably: several artists have already pledged not to work there, and the JCC will have a hard time hiring a new artistic director who is on board with their strictures.  

As for Roth, there is a new company, Mosaic Theater Company, to build. I hope audiences flock there.




Posted on December 22, 2014 .

"Youth" Depicted but Unexplored

This is Our Youth_Broadway_review.jpg

This is Our Youth treads familiar ground. It depicts that bewildering phase of adolescence when ‘kid’, ‘teen’, and ‘adult’ are all appropriate identifiers, when inurement to life’s disappointments coexists with childlike cravings for unadulterated happiness. It is an anti-coming-of-age story where the protagonists don’t necessary learn anything. First produced in 1996,This is Our Youth was Kenneth Lonergan’s launch pad, fomenting his career as a playwright and filmmaker. The play has been widely praised, and its revival this year (first in Chicago and now on Broadway) has been celebrated by nearly every critic in New York.

Youth is not a plot-driven story; it is a day in the life of vulnerable Warren, his domineering friend Dennis and his elusive crush, Jessica. Warren’s been kicked out of his parents’ house for his pot habit, and, after stealing fifteen grand from his father, arrives at Dennis’ apartment in search of somewhere to sleep and (more generally) a happier existence. The events that follow include buying and selling drugs, pawning Warren's toy collection, and wooing Jessica – each clumsily strategized and mostly ending in disappointment.

The fact that not much happens is not an outright problem, per se. Anna D. Shapiro’s direction packs physicality and tension into each moment, whether it’s a destructive football toss, a boyish wrestling match, a sprayed plate of cocaine, or a spontaneous dance. She makes the play pulsate. But while the lack of action isn’t a flaw, the lack of ideas is, and I kept wondering if Lonergan was trying to say anything larger than “here are three directionless people at the cusp of adulthood.”

The most illuminating idea, as I saw it, comes from Jessica in Act I. She arrives at Dennis’ apartment to the delight of Warren, and as Warren tries to flirt with her, they begin to have an argument about identity. The topic at hand is whether personalities are fixed throughout life, and Jessica argues that they change entirely, almost unrecognizably. The free-loving activists of the 60s become the Reagan-supporting lawyers of the 80s, she says. More so, if we were to find a letter that we wrote years earlier, it would contain emotions, details and beliefs that are foreign to ones we have later in life.

The idea is a poignant one for young adults who hold thoughts passionately though not long term. I awaited the follow-through of this sentiment in the second act, but frustratingly it never came. The final note of the play is simply that Warren lacks connection to anyone: not to his parents, who ostracize him emotionally and physically; not to Jessica, who leaves Warren wondering if she wants him or just self-affirmation; and not to Dennis, who keeps Warren as a close friend because his abuse of Warren goes unchecked.

It’s testament to the cast that so much pathos rises out of an energetic but bleak script. Kieran Culkin is a perfect asshole in the role of Dennis (his abrasiveness is reminiscent of his great performance in Igby Goes Down years ago) and while the play spends too long on Dennis’ uncontrolled anger, Culkin commits wholeheartedly to it. Tavi Gevinson (Jessica) speaks her lines a bit too theatrically but authentically portrays the mixed bag of confidence and delusion specific to those who know they’re desirable but don’t know how to handle it. Most memorable is Michael Cera who – though he seems to reprise the same sensitive role repeatedly – plunges deep into the pain of Warren and makes him endearing, funny, and heartbreaking. 

Another redeemer is the set. Created by Todd Rosenthal, it centers on the interior of Dennis’ apartment, cluttered and style-less with touches of the early 80s like the extra-long extension cord on his beige telephone. The exterior of the apartment – an old white brick façade – rises high toward the proscenium to meet to gaze of audience members in the balcony. The building – not rundown, but not upscale either – feels like anyone’s first New York apartment. It may not be glamorous, but just being there feels grown up.

It reminded me of a line Shoshanna says on Girls when she walks into Hannah’s apartment: “Um, seriously though, I like really think that the best years of your life are like totally gonna happen here.” Like GirlsThis is Our Youth presents the chasm between the desired life and life as it is. It's a great point of takeoff. Sadly, the play never leaves the ground.

Posted on September 30, 2014 .

Hedwig and the Battle Between Story and Experience

The drag rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch has been a cult sensation in each of its incarnations – first as a downtown musical, then a film, and now a Broadway show. On a recent night when I saw a performance, I wasn’t surprised to see (and hear) the formidable presence of superfans. No sooner would the intro notes to a song play than the crowd would erupt in cheers, some crooning the opening bars. One woman in my section wore what looked to be a handmade poncho covered in patchwork images of Neil Patrick Harris. Cleary not a first-timer.

I have to confess that when I first watched the film of Hedwig, I couldn’t get past the first 45 minutes. The story was – and I think still is – ridiculously far-fetched. An East-German boy discovers rock music, experiences a botched sex-change operation, moves to America, and becomes a pop singer only to have his songs stolen by his young creative partner (and momentary lover) for whom he babysat. What redeems the show, and what made me want to see it on stage, is the music. Composed and written by Stephen Trask, Hedwig’s score sounds even better live. His songs are catchy, energized, and uplifting all at once. And each is soulful enough to emotionally transport the audience, especially when performed by an actor as talented and magnetic as Neil Patrick Harris. (I had the pleasure of seeing Harris on his last night in the role.) 

The music is so good that, ultimately, it manages to eclipse the narrative missteps throughout the show. (Even within Hedwig's bizarre world, there are several moments and that are off and implausible.) For example, the concept that director Michael Mayer creates for the Broadway production involves Hedwig performing a one-night concert at the Belasco Theatre, the actual theater where the show is playing. But Hedwig is supposed to be a flop who has no fame to speak of. She would never perform at the Belasco, certainly not to the thunderous applause that NPH receives while playing her. So the meta-story in which Mayer couches the plot doesn't hold. And the show gets further derailed from there, culminating in a final scene where it's not clear whether Hedwig transforms into another character or instead if we're suddenly in the presence of that other character. I'm guessing Mayer wants that ambiguity, but why, I couldn’t say.

In any case, the fan-abundant audience didn’t seem thrown by the non-sequitors, I suspect because the themes of self-acceptance spoke louder than the narrative hiccups. More so, the show’s finale is triumphant, with a beautiful star-filled visual and with Harris shedding his wig and makeup. 

Leaving the theater that night, it occurred to me that Hedwig is part of a larger category of musicals: shows that succeed by taking audiences on an emotional trip. These musicals brim with feeling and ensure that the viewer feels something, regardless of whether the plot is meandering or nonexistent. Hair is a classic example. So is A Chorus Line. These are iconic musicals, with memorable runs and multiple revivals. The fact that these musicals encourage the viewer to feel more than think, does not imply that there isn't great ingenuity at work. They are meant to tap into a specific experience that is entertaining to watch and personally meaningful to contemplate. Hedwig manages to fall short as a story but succeed as an experience. It is in many ways the opposite of what a play sets out to do. 


Photo credit: Sara Krulwich

Posted on September 11, 2014 .

Danny Burstein talks Cabaret and Jewish Theater

Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall's revival of Cabaret (which opened on Broadway in 1998) imagined the Kander & Ebb musical so inventively that many theatergoers - including those familiar with the film and previous Broadway incarnations - found it to be the definitive production of the musical.

The show is back on Broadway with the same direction but an entirely new cast (save for Alan Cumming as the Emcee, and Kristin Olness as Kit Kat girl Helga). While the look and feel of the show is mostly consistent with its last run, the actors find new dimension, invigorating their characters with unique energy. One to look out for is Danny Burstein, a Broadway regular who plays the endearing Jewish fruit salesman, Herr Schultz. I spoke with Burstein for a profile in The Jewish Week about preparing for this role, mastering a German accent, and the meaning of Jewish Theater. 

Anyone who has seen a version of the musical “Cabaret” will recall the dazzling, provocative world of the Kit Kat Club, a fictional nightclub in pre-World War II Berlin. At the top of the show, a vivacious emcee, originated by Joel Grey, beckons us inside enticingly. “We have no troubles here!” he promises. “Here, life is beautiful.”

The iconic musical, created by Kander and Ebb with book writer Joe Masteroff, offers an intoxicating glimpse into Weimar decadence. The Kit Kat Club’s star performer, Sally Bowles, and her paramour, an American novelist named Cliff, appear to be almost fantastical, offering each other — and the audience — a taste of wish fulfillment. But there is a second narrative in “Cabaret,” a subtler presence that is equally essential to the work. It is the story of a Jewish character, the show’s only one, who personally experiences Germany’s shifting tide.


Continue the article at The Jewish Week.


photo credit: Joan Marcus



Posted on May 20, 2014 .

Journalist Lawrence Wright Reimagines the Camp David Accords Onstage

Lawrence Wright has no need for a second career. The veteran journalist writes for the New Yorker, travels regularly, and devotes years to his nonfiction books which reliably become best-sellers – like his 2013 expose of Scientology, Going Clear, and his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Looming Tower, which investigated the history of Al-Qaeda. 

And yet, he stumbled upon playwriting years ago and fell in love. This month, Wright will present his sixth play, Camp David, about the historic Camp David Accords in 1978 that established a lasting peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. (Camp David runs at Arena Stage in Washington DC through May 4th.)

I spoke to the indefatigable writer about historical drama, the Middle East, and the subject of his next book. My article on Lawrence Wright and Camp David is featured in the April issue of American Theatre

(Camp David stars Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter, Hallie Foote as Rosalynn Carter, Ron Rifkin as Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, and Khaled Nabawy as Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. )


In your three previous plays, there has been a journalist onstage, either you playing yourself or an actor playing a fictional journalist. In each of these works, the journalist figure has been instrumental in propelling the narrative. Camp David, on the other hand, features four historical figures and no presence of a journalist. How does this represent a new writing experience for you? 

I think that’s a good observation. To some extent my previous work has been a transition into theater. In 1992, I saw Fires in the Mirror at the Public Theater, Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman show. And what was so striking to me was that she married journalism and theater together, and I didn’t know that could be done. I was electrified by that and I thought there’s something there for me. 

After I finished The Looming Tower, I did a one-man show for the New Yorker festival [My Trip to Al-Qaeda]. In that case, I WAS the journalist; I was presenting my experience. And I did the same thing with The Human Scale. And in a way, I did the same thing with Fallaci because there two journalists struggling over the truth. So for me it was a big deal to take that figure out . The journalist had always been my entry into the narrative.  

You’ve spoken previously about the idea of the “donkey” – the figure or character that carries the audience into the story. Does Camp David have one? 

Not exactly, there’s not an outsider in this. The only person who is to some extent the audience’s representative is Rosalynn. Her job is to make peace among the peacemakers. 

When I was reading Rosalynn’s memoir, she mentioned that she kept a diary at Camp David. So when I went to Plains, Georgia, I said, “Mrs. Carter, it would sure help if I could look at it” and I kept pestering Gerald Rafshoon [Carter’s director of communications and current producer of Camp David] to ask President Carter. Then, one day in the mail I got a manila envelope and there was her diary. 

There have been many attempts to broker peace between Israel and surrounding Arab nations. What do you think made Camp David effective? 

That’s an important question because it’s what the play addresses. Camp David was three religious men trying to solve a problem that religion had caused in the first place. 

It’s never been duplicated. It was uniquely successful, and yet it was constantly on the verge of collapse. It’s three leaders leaving their affairs of state behind to solve this problem that’s almost insoluble. Carter was the key to it but he had to become a different person. Within the first few hours of Begin and Sadat meeting, they hated each other so much that Carter had to keep them separated. He had to improvise and create his own plan for peace. 

Do you think he came out of it a changed president? 

Yeah. It was too late to salvage his presidency though.  

What do you think is the collective memory today on Carter’s presidency? 

Carter is perceived as a failed president. I think when he left office he was so unpopular that nobody wanted to give him credit for the great thing he did. And of course he was running against one of the most formidable candidates in modern times. He suffered by comparison. But there are things that got him elected in the first place that people have come to forget. He was a redemptive figure in the south. He had made race relations his signature achievement in Georgia, and he came into the presidency with the same idea. 

Going back to a point you made about the three men being religious, you wrote in The Looming Tower that religious belief is more influential than political belief in affecting people’s actions. 

In the case of Carter, Begin, and Sadat, that was extremely true. Carter and Sadat were both pious men. And Begin was very ethnically oriented toward his Judaism. For Sadat, it was only his religious belief that gave him the courage to break with the Arab world in its rejection of Israel. When Carter got to the White House, making peace in the Middle East was at the top of his political agenda. And in my opinion, it was almost entirely religiously motivated. 

It’s impossible to discuss Camp David without looking at the previous wars between Israel and Egypt. In the Six Day War in 1967, Egypt’s military was decimated in the first day, which was an astounding victory for Israel. And once Egypt’s military failed, the other Arab nations involved in the war quickly followed suit. 

Another thing about that war – both the Arabs and Jews came to similar conclusions [about God]. In Egypt there was the feeling that “God is not on our side.” And the radical element of Islam was empowered by the defeat. You see far more radical groups than the Muslim Brothers begin to emerge. In Israel, there was a sense of jubilation, that “this is God’s will”. And the rise of the ultra-Orthodox began to rise. So the ’67 war was really a seminal event. 

As a Jewish person who has spent time in Israel and lived there for a year, I’ve heard the continual narrative that Israel is simultaneously mighty and mortally susceptible. Maybe it’s the perpetual Jewish narrative. Do you think that Begin went into the peace talks with that dual mindset? 

Oh absolutely. As you observed, Israel at times feels invulnerable and also on the brink of existential loss. In Begin’s experience, a third of the Jewish people had been exterminated. He felt that he had in his hands the future of the Jewish people. Israelis felt invulnerable after the ’67 war, but then came ’73 [the Yom Kippur War], and although with American assistance it recovered, Israel’s faith in itself was shaken and there was a stronger motivation to achieve peace. 

Why was Palestinian statehood unattainable at Camp David? 

The Camp David Accords actually do accommodate the autonomy talks that should have led to some sort of resolution. But they were never completed. And of course there were no Palestinian representatives present at Camp David. The PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] was regarded as a terrorist organization, and there was no other authorized representative of the Palestinian people. So Sadat took it on, but he didn’t have the authority to make peace with the Palestinians. 

The Accords are two separate frameworks – the treaty between Israel and Egypt, and the autonomy talks for the Palestinians. They were supposed to be linked together, but the second portion was never put into practice. At some point it became clear to Carter that he couldn’t get everything, and he put the Palestinian issue aside. Carter thought he had gotten Begin to agree that there would be no more settlements in the West Bank. 

And then Begin promoted new settlements right after. 

Almost immediately. And Carter’s never forgiven him for it. And neither did Begin forgive Carter. The last time Carter went to Israel when Begin was still alive, Begin refused to see him. 

That’s amazing given the experience they went through together. 

And Carter is loathed in Israel as you know. And yet, Ezer Weizman [President of Israel in the 1990s and former commander of the Israeli Air Force] said no American president has given more to Israel than Carter because he gave them peace. 

How do you think the treaty is viewed today by Egyptians? 

Well, on both sides it’s an unloved treaty, and yet essential. In Egypt, there’s been a cold peace with Israel. It’s not a friendly peace, but it’s endured for 36 years now. Egypt was spending an extraordinary amount of its economy on military and since then it has been allowed to develop its economy in a more normal fashion. 

After visiting the Camp David archives and conducting research and interviews, have you incorporated specific quotes into the script? 

Oh yeah. I tried as much as possible to find the language that they used. I always ask, what were the words that they used.  

Your research process for this play has been incredibly thorough. What I find fascinating is that the parts that are invented come from so much immersion in the subject matter that they have the feeling of realness. 

Thank you. I come from the nonfiction world and I’m wedded to the idea that reality is more interesting than fantasy. My challenge as a writer is to take what I know to be real and imagine the rest, to make the connections that put these real bits together. And it’s easier for me to do that when I’m steeped in the material. It’s thrilling to be able to take this canvas and bring something back to life. 

There’s a couple lessons from Camp David: one is that there are no perfect partners for peace. They were just as intransigent and oppositional as our leaders are these days and yet peace was accomplished. And another thing was that it didn’t have anything to do with timing. Oftentimes people will say, “the deal’s not ripe, it’s not ready to be achieved”, but that was just as true then. 

I heard you’re at work on another book. What is this one about?

It’s about Camp David! When I finished the play, I thought that the book I would have based the play on doesn’t exist and I had already done a considerable amount of research. It’s issues that I’ve been interested in as a chronicler of the Middle East, and everything was on the table at Camp David.


 Photo credit: Kenny Braun

Posted on April 2, 2014 .

The Bridges of Madison County: Film adaptations make great musicals. No wait, they're bad.

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The Bridges of Madison County opens with a solo. With the exception of Oklahoma!, musicals do not usually do well to begin with one actor singing alone onstage. The structure of musicals (which is surprisingly consistent among vastly different shows) tends to place a solo number as the second or third song, after we’ve had a chance to meet the main characters and become acquainted with the central backstory of the show.

In this work, we are introduced at the start to Francesca, the Italian woman who left her home in Naples to become a housewife to Bud, an ex-soldier from rural Iowa. When we meet her family in the next scene – husband Bud and two teenage kids – we already know about Francesca’s journey to America and how, despite the years past, she doesn’t feel quite at home or quite herself. It isn’t a great dramatic set-up – in other words, there isn’t much at stake – but what it does is orient the story entirely from Francesca’s perspective. And it helps when that character is played by an actress as formidable as Kelli O’Hara.

O’Hara is a director’s dream, as the show’s director, Bartlett Sher, would likely attest. (Sher directed her twice before, in South Pacific and A Light in the Piazza.) O’Hara simply illuminates the stage, due as much to her lovely, expansive voice and physical beauty as to an uncanny ability to radiate sincerity in every scene. There is nary an ironic or subversive note in O’Hara’s performances, which makes her a near perfect choice for the veritable tear-jerker that is Madison County.

When The Bridges of Madison County was published as a novel in 1992, it ignited a passion in readers. Its popularity might be compared to the current captivation with Fifty Shades of Grey, except that Madison County offered a fantasy beyond sexual abandon. Deep, soul-reaching love is just as much the source of passion for its lovers. [After writing this, I noticed that Ben Brantley made the same analogy in his review. Either we’re thinking similarly, or it’s an obvious comparison.] The central relationship in Madison County is between Francesca and a handsome photographer named Robert Kincaid who visits Madison County on an assignment to photograph the area’s historic covered bridges. An immediate spark ignites between them and they begin a brief but intense relationship while Bud and the kids are away at a state fair. A movie adaptation in 1995, starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, was also a huge hit, and it’s not surprising that the next incarnation would be a musical. The grand emotional scale is just right for the heightened form of musicals, not to mention that nowadays every Hollywood production company has a Broadway division, eager to adapt the next high-grossing film.

The Broadway production of Madison County, which ran last summer at Williamstown Theatre Festival, features a score by Jason Robert Brown and a book by Marsha Norman, each a seasoned musical writer. In their partnership, those grand emotions that made the novel and film memorable transfer believably through song and dialogue. Steven Pasquale, imbued with a powerful singing voice and chiseled bone structure, stars as Robert, ensuring that Francesca’s reasons for having an extra-marital affair are well understood if not justified. Pasquale and O’Hara collaborated previously (on the musical Far From Heaven) and their onstage chemistry is authentic and palpable. All of these elements work together and convey a heartfelt love story where it could easily have been contrived or saccharine.

The show also finds room for laughs, very much needed in a work this heart-tugging. One comic moment happens early on in a frenetic family scene. As Bud and the kids get ready to leave the house for their drive to the state fair, Bud spills a package of ice all over the floor. It happens suddenly, making me, and I imagine others in the audience, wonder if it had been an accident. A moment later, in sung conversation, Bud asks how Francesca will spend the upcoming days without him. Francesca mentions a few things, then adds, “Or I might spend three days cleaning up this ice.” Staged, indeed, but delivered cleverly toward a joke. The line also indicates how resigned Francesca has become to a life of housework.

The balance of humor to gravitas owes much to Director Bartlett Sher who does impressive work here. His last Broadway production was Golden Boy, Clifford Odets' beautiful and underrated play about an Italian-American teenager who trades in his violin for boxing gloves. Sher is a master at creating a swell of emotion onstage. Bridges could easily be a schmaltzy sap-fest. But it wasn't. The one change I’d suggest would be to shift the focus toward Robert. He is the traveler in search of purpose, and the experience of meeting Francesca is life-changing for him. Francesca, by contrast, has a rather complete life already – it may not be passion-filled, but it does include a husband and two children who love her. 

There was much to enjoy and even love about this production, and yet, I left the theater wondering, "Why was this made into a musical?" The fact remains that if you put a talented composer, writer, director, and pair of actors in a room together, they'll likely emerge with something beautiful. But there's something about adapting a major motion picture that feels so unnecessary, so redundant. Unless, of course, the vision is vastly different in its use of theatricality. Adaptations of novels are quite different, partly because fewer people read books than see movies, but also because the experience of reading is private and quiet; a staged performance therefore has the opportunity to offer a live interpretation of the written word. In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir that found its musical incarnation at the Public Theater this year, the creative team of Janeane Tesori, Lisa Kron, and Sam Gold envisioned a musical that held the emotional core of the book while depicting the narrative in a completely original way.

Adaptations have for decades been a life force in theater. In fact, most of the long-running, influential Broadway shows have been adaptations, from Cats to Fiddler on the Roof to RENT. But the Hollywood takeover of Broadway has made adaptations – particularly of movies – the norm, unintentionally crowding out new work. Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt are about to debut their second original musical, If/Then, following the success of their first (the Pulitzer-Prize winning Next to Normal). Kitt and Yorkey prove that audiences will embrace new work if the talent is there. Marsha Norman has all but rejected new musicals, asserting that audiences want something they already know. I'll admit that a recognizable movie title may be an easier sell, but I think audiences are just as on board for a great story with beautiful music. Jason Robert Brown does deliver on that front. His powerful duet “One Second and Million Miles” feels as emotionally riveted as the final song of his previous work, The Last Five Years, “Goodbye Until Tomorrow”. His composing talent is undeniable as is his ability to write new musicals. There's no argument that films are great and that some musicals adapted from films are beautiful. But they're overwhelming Broadway. There are great composer and lyricists writing new work right now if we look past the dizzying list of musicals lifted from films we already know.


Photo credit: Sara Krulwich

Posted on March 10, 2014 .

Theater Review: Betrayal


There is no sex in Betrayal. In other words, the play’s intimate scenes between couples both marital and extramarital include nothing more than a few kisses. Here’s one scene between Emma and her husband Robert: He kisses her, she responds. She breaks away, puts her head on his shoulder, cries quietly. He holds her. And another between Emma and Robert’s closest friend, Jerry, who has become Emma’s lover: Emma and Jerry standing, kissing…he continues to hold her…. And later: she caresses him, they embrace. These are the stage notes written by playwright Harold Pinter in the script of his play, Betrayal. For a play about infidelity, the action is notably more verbal than physical. There’s certainly no clothes ripping or urgency sex between the illicit lovers as one might expect. Unless, of course, the reason for this affair is not primarily sexual. It’s an interesting take. After all, there’s more than one way to cheat on a spouse.

And yet, the affair between Emma and Jerry does not contain much emotional desire either. What represses Pinter’s play is his characters’ self-absorption. By writing them as self-interested partners, Pinter limits the degree to which they might probe substantial ideas about loyalty and love. The absence of that comes as a disappointment. Heartfelt desire – for someone or something – is one of the most compelling emotions to be found in drama and in life. In this play, the characters do not genuinely love or even crave one another. In fact, the only striking aspect is how minimally Emma and Jerry’s affair incorporates physical urges. What it seems to draw from is the need for companionship outside of a marriage that conjures boredom and resentment. The marriage of Robert and Emma is indeed pained. Aside from the moment when he kisses Emma, Robert’s treatment of his wife ranges from cold and removed to disparaging and abusive. Much of that treatment occurs after he learns Emma has cheated on him, but the writing gives the impression that he never cared for her that much at all, so much so that the tender scene where he holds her stands out as an anomaly.

Which brings me to Mike Nichol’s production on Broadway. That scene between Emma and Robert is directed as an aggressive foray into sex. The tender moment detailed in the script lasts but a second, and suddenly Robert is unzipping Emma’s pants. Similarly so, the kiss between Emma and Jerry escalates to unabashed, clothes-still-on fornicating. What’s going on in this production? Does Nichols read the script as conveying more physicality than the words dictate? Or does he want to titillate his audience by having two men make out with the stunningly beautiful Rachel Weisz, who plays Emma? Perhaps disappointingly, the prurient intrigue among viewers to watch Weisz “cheat” on her real-life husband Daniel Craig (Robert) is mitigated by a lack of passion between her and Jerry (Rafe Spall). Their conversations are too nervous to be overturned by the heat of sexuality. There is one scene that delivers true sexual desire however: the moment when Emma and Jerry’s affair begins, also known as, the last scene of the play.

Pinter’s approach in Betrayal is to move backward in time so that we progress from the affair’s end toward its beginning. It’s a clever decision that pays off only if the final scene (the affair’s conception) illuminates something new about these characters. But it’s more like, “Oh, this is the night when the affair started.” There is no discovery, neither in the script, nor in Nichol’s production. Jerry finds Emma attractive, she complies with his advances, and so it goes. 

While it seems like a producer’s dream to have Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig perform Pinter, this is not a play in which one peels back layers to reveal deeper truths. Weisz, Craig, and Spall are all capable actors who do much with limited material. And of course, Weisz and Craig are so physically beautiful, they can hold a viewer’s attention through stage presence alone. The subject matter of Betrayal appears rich with dramatic possibilities. But real emotion needs to be at stake. Nichols adds in sex to convey that feeling. But sex without emotion is empty. The director who so brilliantly brought us The Graduate, Working Girl, and Closer surely knows that.  

photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe

Posted on January 2, 2014 .

Theater Review: Daniel Kitson's Analog.ue

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This performance marked my first experience seeing the much-acclaimed monologist, Daniel Kitson – a favorite at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO. Except, it wasn’t exactly a performance, and Analog.ue doesn’t quite display Kitson’s talents as a monologist. The script is heard by way of prerecorded audio, projected from twenty-three tape recorders. Each recorder plays a fragment of the story, and it is Kitson’s role in every performance to play them in perfect order so that the story is told seamlessly. It’s clear that Kitson means to say something about how we craft and retell stories. Though, in the show’s opening, he confesses that there is no significance to his using twenty-three recorders. That line made the audience laugh, but it made me wary of the artist for admitting so readily that his artistic process is at least partially accidental. 

Analog.ue opens on an expansive black stage, alit solely by two lamps projected toward the back wall. We see Kitson’s silhouette amidst a cluster of vintage-looking reel-to-reel recorders. The image is striking and rather beautiful. Kitson then begins (and proceeds for the duration of the show) to pick up his recording equipment and either tote it easily or hoist it laboriously depending on its size and weight all the way downstage toward the audience. Finding a desirable location, he sets down each one, unravels the cord, plugs it in, and thus begins the next segment of the story.

The story in question has two parallel characters: one, an old man named Thomas whose memory is fading. His wife Gertie encourages him to record all of his thoughts and memories before they’re lost, which he does on a single fall day in 1977. The second character is Trudy, a modern-day woman fatigued by the mundaneness of her life, whose story travels backward toward her birth, also in 1977. Kitson makes humorous mentions of the quotidian events of Trudy’s life, but they don’t add up to anything bigger. There’s no tension in her life, just boredom. One segment features Trudy’s feelings about yogurt. It’s “fine”, she concludes. Not good or bad, but fine. That expression, sadly, describes my feelings about Kitson’s script. The only anticipation in the story is for the moment when Trudy and Thomas’ worlds might intersect. They do but rather simply and without much consequence.

What impressed me far more than the story was Kitson’s physical work on that stage. The way he methodically organized the speakers and reels across the floor; the precise timing he displayed in switching between reels so that no lapse in storytelling occurred. His hard work was visible. He was creating something in real time. It reminded me of the Israeli production Nalaga’at – a work that explores life for deaf and blind individuals. In the show, the actors – all deaf and blind themselves – bake bread onstage while a voiceover narrates the hardships and poignancies of navigating the world tactically, rather than visually and aurally. The actors mix yeast and flour, knead the dough, and bake the bread in a working oven onstage. It is real and palpable and sensory. Kitson’s work here is quite different but, like Nalaga’at, it offers a new conduit for storytelling. Analog.ue is a live show and it isn’t a live show. It is a story and also the meticulous crafting of a story. I find that approach compelling and original. The only shortcoming was that Kitson’s form greatly eclipsed his content. 


Photo credit: Pavel Antonov

Posted on December 24, 2013 .

An Interview with Lisa Kron

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When Alison Bechdel published her graphic novel Fun Home, a memoir exploring the complex relationship she had with her enigmatic father, the accolades came in droves. Among those captivated by the book was Lisa Kron, the Tony-nominated writer and performer who is known to weave personal memory into her own work.

Kron is now the book writer and lyricist on her first musical, an adaptation of Fun Home, opening tonight at the Public Theater. I caught a preview performance of the show last week and was amazed by nearly every element: the score (Jeanine Tesori), the staging (Sam Gold), and the rich cast of actors. But what was most brilliant was how creatively the graphic form was reimagined as live theater. Without wanting to place an academic lens on the work, it is, in my view, the highest form of adaptation: completely original yet faithful to the book in every scene.

Below, my conversation with Lisa Kron, on reworking a masterpiece:

Much of your work draws on your own personal and familial experience. How do you compare the experience of adapting someone else’s memoir?

I have never thought of my work as memoir. I’ve used personal material, but I’ve done it in order to explore some idea. Living with Fun Home now for five years, I’m astonished everyday at what a – and I don’t use this term lightly, it’s a masterpiece. [Alison] and I have both exploited personal material in order to give the audience – or in her case, the reader – some kind of experience. We’re making something that we hope will feel like the experience of the book, Fun Home. But in order to do that, we had to do an incredible amount of conflation and invention. And gratifyingly, Alison has said that it feels real to her even when she knows it didn’t happen that way.

That’s a great compliment to receive from her.

Yeah, it was relieving! And it’s true that you cannot be reverent about a thing you’re adapting. You have got to reinvent it. There’s an initial impulse to do a one-for-one substitution. Instead of this thing, we’ll do this thing. And there’s a desire when something is so beautifully made to try to replicate the whole thing. And anybody quickly realizes you can’t do that. I had to read that book for two years before I could dismantle that structure in order to see what was happening. So that I could see the components and put it back together in a different form. The spine has to exist differently in a musical.

Alison had given an interview where she talked about the book being a labyrinth. Musicals, on the other hand, have to be a machine in some ways, with a very specific structure. Did you try to maintain that labyrinth form?

The second time I read it, I thought, there are no scenes in this book. There’s this voice that is key to the book, then there’s a child from age 4 to 19. So how do you cast that? I’ve always loved musicals, but once I started working on this, I started looking at them with a different eye, and it’s absolutely true that if you don’t have that clear engine…. Jeanine and I had a conversation with George Wolfe and he was saying, “You have to be so clear. The person has to want one thing, and it has to be a life and death thing, and you have to say it really clearly, and then you can be as complicated as you want.”

What do you think makes a good book writer?

I guess a sense of structure. And if you’re not writing lyrics, a lot of humility. I have loved working on the lyrics for this.

Alison has said that her images and her text function on two levels of storytelling. How do you transition in storytelling when you’re writing a song from when you’re writing dialogue?

We’re hopeful that this will feel – as the book does – that there’s a straightforward drive to it. The book hinges around these huge life-changing events, but apart from that the characters are leading their lives and they don’t know that these big things are going to happen. They’re also emotionally repressed people. So it’s writing songs for people who don’t know what their emotions are and a book in which there are virtually no events. Like the juxtaposition in her book, we also have juxtaposition: of past and present, of what’s spoken and what’s sung.

It seems that one of the cool things about entering the musical world is that suddenly you’re connected to all of these talented composers and performers.  

Musical theater people are incredible. It makes you feel so remedial as a human being. You know there’s that game people play where they say, if you could choose a superpower, what would it be? I think now I would say music: to be able to sit at the piano and do what Jeanine can do. It’s not just that dialogue is set to music. The music does a whole other thing. And what happens between those two elements is the most thrilling thing I’ve experienced in the theater. The most extraordinary plays will have moments that lift off, but they’ll never do it the way music does.


Posted on October 22, 2013 .