When A.R. Gurney busted out of the witty, WASPy family play last year in The Fourth Wall to rail against the rightward drift of America, the very question of dramatic form lay at the heart of the work. The heroine just couldn’t remain within the stultifying naturalistic frame (and its concomitantly stifling marriage, mores, and middle-class knickknacks) if she wanted to resist the overweening recklessness of George W. Bush.
Though not quite as frontally, narrative conventions remain the issue in Gurney’s new play, O Jerusalem, a surprisingly funny and heartfelt exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A group of actors from some unspecified time in “the Future” is showing us—and commenting upon—a play written shortly after 9-11. The company, one actor explains cheerfully, has made cuts, “indicating these changes as we go along,” because it is “a long, rambling, and tormented piece.”
That internal play follows the political awakening of an oil executive, Hartwell Clark (Stephen Rowe), who has decided to “give something back” by abandoning corporate cushiness for a diplomatic post in the Middle East. Or maybe (as his bitter wife suspects) he has called in the favor from their pal Dubya and “a few oil boys” because he really just wants to look up an old flame, Amira (Rita Wolf), a Palestinian with whom he had a consuming affair back when he was a post-Yale Fulbright fellow in Beirut.
True to his Ivy League sense of entitlement, Hartwell is, in fact, an incorrigible womanizer. The flickering spark between him and Amira—as well as the long-unfanned embers glowing beneath his friendship with Sally (Priscilla Shanks), an executive in the U.S. Information Agency—drives the action, lending the plot an ordinary and, well, rambling and tormented air, as Hartwell keeps trying to seduce both women. (“Despair is the greatest aphrodisiac,” he unctuously reminds Amira. “Perhaps that’s why we Palestinians have so many children,” she replies.)
What Amira wants, though, is that Hartwell use his access to put forward a peace plan in exchange for information from her militant son that an attack on a major eastern American city is imminent. Never mind that a Hamas activist would not likely have been privy to Al Qaeda plans, or that the son of a Christian Palestinian—Amira’s proud identity—would not have joined an Islamic fundamentalist organization. Hartwell agonizes after 9-11 over not having warned authorities insistently enough, and holes up in New Hampshire to write a diatribe about American foreign policy, capitalist imperialism, Hollywood violence, and the wayward notion of the nation-state.
As Hartwell shares his jeremiad with the audience, O Jerusalem takes on the giddy evangelism of someone who has just read Chomsky for the first time. Meanwhile, the internal plot takes over more and more of the action, crowding out the ironic commentary of the future actors putting on the play. Hartwell’s hectoring replaces Gurney’s sly humor.
Gurney is hardly alone in finding the romantic comedy inadequate to the demands of a complex political drama, and if he hasn’t quite devised a new form for his emerging concerns, O Jerusalem is at least deft and deeply clever. In quick strokes that work well within his conventions, he can show Hartwell’s repressed WASP anti-Semitism as more insidious than Amira’s overt and self-righteous Jew-hating. In a hilarious and poignant turn, he gives Amira a driver from Tel Aviv car service as she tracks Hartwell down in New England. Under Jim Simpson’s direction, a spry cast of five, along with Kyle Chepulis’s handy scene-setting poster boards, provide a layer of amusement that keeps bathos at bay. Priscilla Shanks, as dry as the water-deprived West Bank, balances perfectly between striking the sardonic distance of the retrospective narrator and jumping fully into Sally’s mixed personal and political emotions. If only policy makers could do both at once, too.
Proust’s narrator in his monumental Remembrance of Things Past has his own antipathies to nationalism, ethnic or sexual: “I have thought it well to utter here a provisional warning against the lamentable error of proposing (just as people have encouraged a Zionist movement) to create a Sodomist movement and to rebuild Sodom,” he remarks. What interests Richard Nelson in Proust, however, is the five-volume-long love affair between Marcel and Albertine. Well, sort of interests him, because My Life With Albertine pays little heed to Marcel’s deep cruelty and compulsive jealousy, nor to the narcissism that fuels his obsessive internal monologue and furnishes his memory with detail. Bizarrely, Albertine is the villain here, sneaking out on her callow sweetie for crude (and crudely rendered) lesbian assignations.
Ricky Ian Gordon’s Poulenc- and cabaret-inflected score is often pleasant and occasionally intricate, and the game cast—especially Kelli O’Hara—have strong voices. But why they should need mics in Playwrights Horizons’ comfortable, 200-seat, $27 million new digs is beyond me. Worse, who would have thought that 4000 pages of one of the most contemplative modern novels could be reduced to boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl?