In a recent interview with Gothamist, the reporter asked George Packer, a writer for The New Yorker, if he hoped his play Betrayed would help the plight of Iraqis who have aided the American forces and now find themselves endangered. “No,” Packer replied, “I didn’t write the play to draw attention to the issue. . . . I wrote it to do justice to the Iraqis who I met and to explore their situation more deeply and personally.” In that attempt, Packer, a first-time playwright, doesn’t succeed. Though he was more than able to detail character in the New Yorker story Betrayed is based on, this talent largely eludes him as a playwright. But Packer and director Pippin Parker have crafted a satisfying (if occasionally formulaic) tragedy. Despite Packer’s intentions, he’s helping audiences understand the predicament of Iraqi interpreters.
Betrayed begins in a seedy hotel room where Iraqi friends Adnan (Waleed F. Zuaiter) and Laith (Sevan Greene) meet. It has taken an exhausted Adnan three days to travel the mile to the hotel, owing to gun battles and checkpoints. Laith is in worse shape: Because of his involvement with the Americans, local militias have threatened his life. The situation feels quite real and terrifying, but the characters seem generic. (It’s no surprise to learn they’re composites of several different men.) Packer tells us that Adnan is Sunni and Laith Shiite, that Adnan used to sell books while Laith learned English from Metallica songs. But he doesn’t provide much inner life for either: In most scenes, their characters and actions appear interchangeable. Packer fares better with Prescott (Mike Doyle), a conflicted American diplomat, and Intisar (Aadya Bedi), an independent-minded female interpreter.
It isn’t Packer’s empathy that’s at fault—there’s ample evidence of it—but rather the knowledge of how dialogue creates character. The play has power, though, when Packer abandons conversation and lets the actors speak the same agonized lines that the Iraqis in Packer’s article uttered. Witness Adnan, refused entry by the Americans and forced to become an exile in Sweden, a country he knows nothing of. Despite this, he can’t quite bring himself to indict the U.S., even though they’ve treated him so shabbily. He insists, heartbreakingly: “Not betrayed, no, not disappointed. I can never blame the Americans alone. It’s the Iraqis who destroyed their country, with the help of the Americans.” Still, says Adnan, “I dream about America.”