Lawrence Wright looks dandy in a sweater vest. Hands in pockets, head tilted, he speaks in genial Texan tones. Ambling across the Culture Project stage, below projected titles such as “The Hypnotized Chicken” or “We Become Like Sheep,” he’s posed as an avuncular raconteur. But there’s nothing folksy in the least about his subject matter. In My Trip to Al-Qaeda, Wright offers a 75-minute précis of his book The Looming Tower, a 400-page tome tracing the origins of Al Qaeda and the decades-long lead-up to September 11.
Less a play than a lecture-demonstration, Wright recites passages from his text, accented by slides and film clips projected on the wall behind him. Wright also offers a bit of personal history, explaining what drew him particularly to his subject. He had lived in the Middle East for a few years after college, teaching English at the American University in Cairo. He had also written the screenplay for the 1998 film The Siege, which depicts terrorist attacks in New York and the subsequent curtailing of civil liberties. He has described watching the towers come down and thinking, “‘This looks like a movie.’ Then I had the sickening realization, ‘This looks like my movie.'” He e-mailed New Yorker editor David Remnick and begged, “Put me to work.”
My Trip to Al-Qaeda features an odd but not unlikable mix of “how I got that story” and the story itself. The latter’s much more dramatic, but it’s the former that Wright more ably brings to life onstage. He isn’t much of a performer (indeed, the moments in which he tries to act out other characters are gently inept), but he’s quite able to play himself, turning an intimate and personal lens upon the grand political events. His modest, at times soporific, speech provides a welcome contrast to his raucous subject. At times his transitions are shaky or his metaphors labored (that “hypnotized chicken” among them), but Wright offers a much more coherent narrative than most, even in the show’s brief running time.
Wright’s show marks the Culture Project’s first venture in its new space, formerly the home of Manhattan Ensemble Theatre. It would have been an apt choice for either company, considering the Culture Project’s productions of The Exonerated and Road to Guantánamo and MET’s offerings such as Nine Parts of Desire and Golda’s Balcony. It certainly attracted the same informed, if self-congratulatory audience known to both theaters. When Wright declares, “Al Qaeda can’t destroy America; only we can do that to ourselves,” scattered smug clapping sounds. But when Wright concludes, the applause is strong and sustained—and deserved.