July 20, 2024
Theater Review: Itamar Moses’s ‘The Ally’


Josh Radnor in 'The Ally.'

Josh Radnor in The Ally.
Photo: Joan-Marcus

“There is no spokesperson for the playwright in this play,” says the artistic director’s program note for Itamar Moses’s The Ally at the Public Theater. That may be strictly true — nevertheless, the artist is present. The Ally depicts the tightening ideological finger trap in which a well-meaning adjunct professor at an unnamed elite university finds himself caught. Asaf Sternheim (Josh Radnor) is a playwright who, according to his wife, Gwen (Joy Osmanski), “teaches one day a week, one semester a year.” His parents are Israeli immigrants, he grew up in Berkeley, and his plays tend to be anchored, he admits sheepishly, on the great whites of Enlightenment Europe. (His latest is about Otto von Bismarck.) Moses’s own parents immigrated from Israel, he grew up in Berkeley, he has taught playwriting at Yale and NYU, and he first made his name with Bach at Leipzig, a Stoppardian comedy about intrigue among 18th-century organists. (More recently, he won a Tony for the book of The Band’s Visit.) With The Ally, Moses seems to be taking the advice Asaf gives to one of his writing students: “But what’s your story? Maybe start there.” It sounds simple, but the mirror can be the hardest thing to face. It’s vulnerable, it’s risky, and for Moses, it has yielded a play of immense confidence, eloquence, and humility.

People will call The Ally a “play of ideas.” Though they won’t be wrong, that term lacks rootedness, a sense of real stakes, while this play has its feet firmly planted in the bloody earth. For a swift two hours and 40 minutes, the play’s seven characters — dressed in simple street clothes, pacing around an almost empty space — drive headlong into the kinds of discussions that, depending on your personality, either make you want to roll up your sleeves and start belching flames into the comments thread or to hurl your computer out the window and join a Buddhist monastery. No one dies, nothing explodes, there’s scarcely any physical contact, but danger sparks in the air. That’s because what Moses and director Lila Neugebauer (elegantly staging hard conversations everywhere these days) understand is that outside the spare, neutrally carpeted, vaguely Ivy League container of Lael Jellinek’s set — and outside this theater — people are dying, bombs are exploding, and the ability to argue over the rightness and wrongness of it all from the relatively safe remove of colleges and playhouses is at once an absurd privilege and a moral imperative. Through anger, through grief, through fear and entrenched opinion, we have to speak to one another; even harder, we have to listen.

For some, perhaps for many, it will be hard to listen to parts of Moses’s play. Palestine and Israel sit at the center of its debates like two blue-white coals hot enough to burn off your fingerprints. Alongside them and equally searing is America’s continuing scourge of police brutality and anti-Blackness, as well as the troubling relationship between powerful universities — seeming bastions of progressivism — and the communities they gradually marginalize, bulldoze, and consume. The fact that The Ally not only bites all this off but can chew it, without choking, is a serious achievement. But Moses’s nimble weaving of both humor and sincere, curious not knowing into his story’s weighty fabric is what feels like the real revelation. Though its characters talk like blazes, the play doesn’t strut or pose or act pleased with itself. It has no great answer. Like a Socratic teacher — or student — it asks honest questions and keeps asking, and asking, past the point of safety.

Its inciting question seems harmless enough: One of Asaf’s best students, Baron (Elijah Jones), comes to office hours to ask if he will sign a petition. Baron is a local — he grew up, as he describes it, “in the shadow” of the university, and now he finds himself, a young Black man, trying to “be in it but not of it” while navigating a place where the dining hall still features “stained-glass pictures of slaves.” He’s also dealing with a traumatic loss: Campus police have killed his cousin. The murder was recorded on video (“He just keeps asking, ‘What did I do? What did I do?’” Baron tells Asaf), and the community is rallying to try to bring the cops to justice. “And so …” says Asaf, with the tread of a man wading through a shallow tank of sleeping piranhas, “What, you wanna … find a way to write about it?” Baron’s reaction — as if Asaf had suggested skinny-dipping in Jell-O — is gold: “What? No … It made me wanna actually do something.”

What Baron is doing is collecting signatures, and Asaf is theoretically all in. Then he reads the whole document. It’s already loaded: Its author is the head of the activist group Baron has joined, a passionate organizer called Nikia Clark (Cherise Boothe), who happens to be Asaf’s college ex-girlfriend. And it’s a multipart manifesto that includes among its demands a call for the United States to “end all military aid to and impose sanctions on the apartheid state of Israel.” Once he’s back at home with Gwen, Asaf winces and wriggles. “I don’t know if I’d use the word apartheid?” he says. “Just cuz I don’t think you can go around plucking terms from one historical moment and dropping them into others like they apply …”

Moses began work on the play that would become The Ally years ago (Barack Obama was still president), and the show was originally slated to premiere at the Public before the hammer fall of COVID. Now, he has smartly designated that its action takes place in “September and early October of 2023.” That means October 7 looms, and Asaf’s equivocation lands with the icy crunch of a snowball full of nails lobbed brutally out of the recent past. Soon, he’ll bristle at the word genocide: “Which, again, so much of what happens there” — there being Palestine — “is terrible, truly. But genocide?”

If Asaf were to be jolted into our present moment — where American taxes are paying for Israeli bombs now actively falling on Rafah, where almost 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, a third of them children, and where a 25-year-old airman just died by self-immolation outside the Israeli Embassy in D.C. as he repeated “Free Palestine” as his last words — would he still flinch at the language of Baron and Nikia’s petition? Perhaps not, or perhaps not outwardly, but what Moses is investigating here, and what makes The Ally feel so terribly and perpetually present despite the crucial remove of its context, is not simply a character’s reaction to whatever global reality is at hand. It’s that character’s bone-deep instincts — the strings that are plucked on a subconscious level down in the ancestral psyche, when, despite all our intellect, all our “good” politics and “rational” stances, something in our bowels says run or fight or hide. It doesn’t matter how many people die in Palestine: There are still and there will continue to be people who, for reasons they perhaps can’t even articulate to themselves, react with Asaf’s gut-level defensiveness and doubt. I’m sure many of them would say, like Asaf to Gwen, “Look. My ‘feelings’ about Israel are the … reasonable ones.”

Whatever Asaf’s faults, he is at least — and it is no mean thing — a person who strives to articulate. He wants to understand and explain himself, and he wants to listen and to act rightly. He and Nikia once marched together, protested and petitioned together. Perhaps his politics first bubbled up along with his attraction to her, but they are by now long-held and genuine. He has always striven to be — well, it’s in the title. The Ally is, in many ways, the slow peeling back of Asaf’s dependence, as both a writer and an academic, on language. It’s the painful stripping away of his ifs, ands, and buts as Moses digs toward the center of a person who, in his deepest, rawest place — perhaps like all of us if we’re really honest — also wants someone to stand up for him.

Specifically, Asaf longs for someone to advocate for him as a Jew, though it’s going to take him a long time to say as much. First, the thunderclouds rumbling over the manifesto he has waveringly put his name to have to thicken and burst into a full-blown tempest. Soon enough, he finds himself not only “one name way down a list” but the faculty sponsor of a new student organization, Jews for Independent Thought, created after the campus chapter of the Jewish Student Union bans the group from hosting an Israel-critical speaker. (One doesn’t have to look far for myriad examples of actual universities behaving like frightened dictatorships.) Moses’s rendering of the two students who come to Asaf seeking his solidarity is superb, as are Madeline Weinstein and Michael Khalid Karadsheh, who play Rachel, the defector from JSU, and Farid, a member of Students for Palestinian Justice. (“Rarr!” roars Farid, making jokey-scary claws at Asaf when Rachel introduces them. Radnor practically chokes on his own exquisite awkwardness.)

So many plays that navigate the kind of deep, choppy seas The Ally has chosen sink themselves with pomposity, a humorless sense of holiness, or, worse still, plain canniness — a cynical nod to the selling power of relevance lurking inside a righteous agenda. Moses is much smarter than that, much less self-certain, and much, much funnier. How does Asaf end up as the faculty face of a brand-new activist group when he kind of just wanted to fly under the radar? Ego, of course. Rachel — all bright, fast-talking, straight-A’s-and-strong-opinions undergrad energy — tells him she and Farid came to him because he seemed “young, Jewish, progressive, and cool.” Asaf melts, immediately and hilariously. Why just be a name on a list when you could be cool?

At first, I wondered whether Radnor seemed a little too chill to fill Asaf’s shoes, whether the character didn’t want someone with a touch more starch in his spine and twitch to his nervous system. But soon enough, I found that what he and Neugebauer — so skilled at working with actors, so trusting of the text — were molding together was much more interesting and made for a longer, more aching arc. It’s precisely Radnor’s affable, slightly scruffy, well-meaning-hetero-dude exterior that creates such a strong mask, even to himself. Despite eventually bringing up the point that plenty of fascists out there “don’t think [Jews] are white,” his Asaf has clearly been able to navigate the world with relative ease as a straight, white, liberal guy with cute stubble and taste in books. What The Ally does so deftly is surround him with people who lack one or all of those identities, those layers of protection. As they make their arguments, Asaf does what progressives — and, really, any people — do when they feel threatened: He retreats toward his most vulnerable identity. “Why aren’t we entitled to the same protections as you?” he asks Nikia, desperately, when the real shit has finally begun to be said. “Jews are at risk for being Jews, [and] it takes the form of saying we’re powerful, and so for anyone to say we can’t be at risk because we’re powerful is the lie that kills us!”

He’s almost quoting here: Earlier, Asaf fielded an enraged visit from another student, Reuven (the excellent Ben Rosenfield), this one a Ph.D. candidate in Jewish history who unapologetically blasts the petition and the new student group, releasing the full and formidable force of his eloquence in favor of Israel’s continued necessity. Asaf, as always, argues back, trying to remain measured in the face of the rampage that Reuven, who’s from New Jersey, insists is “just talking,” but this new voice gets under his skin. By the time Asaf faces Nikia later on, all of Radnor’s chill is gone; Asaf’s cry now comes from his most primal, least acknowledged self, and it rings with truth. But how to reconcile it with Nikia’s truth (“I’m worried about folks dying today!”)? Or with Rachel’s (“I lost family in the Shoah, too, Professor, which is why my mother told me I’m breaking her heart. But then I just remember what it’s all cost [Farid], and I think, Fuck it, this is right.”)? Or with Baron’s or Farid’s? The Ally reaches its pinnacle in a devastating speech by Farid, who has largely hung back behind Rachel’s type-A white-girl leadership skills, but who, when he steps forward, delivers an extended howl that not only shows us his own insides but demonstrates — viscerally, unacademically — real intersectionality. “You condemn each individual indefensible act!” he fires at Asaf. “Yet you will not condemn as indefensible the national entity that carries them out! ‘Well, because most soldiers surely don’t behave this way’ … ‘Well, then, there must be a reason. What did you do to provoke them?’” He turns to Baron, saying, “Yes. You know. And this is how it is the same … in the experience of moving through the world as the threat of violence incarnate. They don’t need to see the bomb, the gun. We are the bomb. We are the gun.”

Karadsheh soars through this speech, trembling but iron, ablaze, holding his ground. (It’s doubly heartbreaking in light of his little facetious growl at Asaf all those scenes ago.) His great achievement, and Moses’s and Neugebauer’s, lies in the fact that such an effusion — hardly the only one in The Ally — feels not only truthful but real, earned and human, an expression not of writerly grandiosity but of character need. What is to be done with all this truth? Pulsing ominously at the heart of The Ally is a question — a truly frightening one for artists, for scholars, for critics — about the more perilous face of nuance. We believe in it, we fight for it, we mourn its lack in our public discourse, but does it petrify us? Is our resolution sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought? As we cling to complexity while children die and the world burns, have we lost the name of action?

The Ally is at the Public Theater through March 17.


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