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A CurtainUp Review

There was always, always this sound in the back of my head: The time will come, the time will come, the change will come. My time will come. It is not my destiny to live and die in an Iraq like this. And when 2003 came, I couldn't believe how right I was..—Adnan, one of the three Iraqis in George Packer's play who believed that their impossible dreams during Saddam's time possible after the arrival of the Americans.
Sevan Greene & Waleed F. Zuaiter (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The words from George Packer's New Yorker article about the plight of Iraqis who worked for the U.S. in Baghdad as translators have made a grippingly dramatic leap to the stage of New York's Culture Project. While the linguistic expertize of the Iraqis interviewed in Packer's piece was crucial to a country which should have recruited or trained bi-lingual Americans long ago, the Iraqui translaters never received the upgraded credentials that would have made the trips between their homes and the embassy office less risky. Worse yet, they eventually found themselves trapped between the murderous hostility of fellow Iraqis who considered them traitors and the Americans unwilling to protect their jobs or repay their service by granting them asylum in this country.

Betrayed, the article was a powerful exposé of the failure to keep the good will of the Iraqis who so eagerly supported and served their cause— a failure summed up by an Embassy official who says that while the war may just end up a fever dream "part of its legacy will be thousands of Iraqis who, because they joined the American effort, can no longer live in their own country." The play culled from the long article does not roam over quite as populated and detailed a canvas and Mr. Packer has been quoted as saying that he did not write it as a take-action polemic.

The few very human composite characters created from the many interviews are indeed the stuff of theater rather than journalism. However, a good deal of the article's most pungent quotes have survived, now spoken by the play's two main characters, Adnan and Laith—and this play is, like the piece that inspired it, a disturbing eye-opener. It is not so much an anti-Iraq war piece of agitprop as a drama about a particular group of people and circumstances who embody the countless human tragedies that are the inevitable by-product of any war.

It's a credit to Mr. Packer's virgin playwriting, boosted by Pippin Parker's astute direction and the emotionally resonant performances of the actors, that none of the characters are mouthpieces for points of view. Structured to move from a nonspecific present back to the early days of the American occupation of Baghdad, Packer employed the fashionable device of the audience-addressing monologue, but not exclusively so. The result is a smartly paced drama with a beginning, middle and end. Though, the situation that propels the plot makes a happy ending impossible— and for that matter includes a horrendous scene around the midpoint— Packer alleviates the tension with a good deal of humor.

That humor is evident throughout, beginning with the prologue in an unspecified time and place that introduces Adnan (Waleed F. Zuaiter), a gentle, soft-spoken former bookseller in his thirties. He tells us that he cemented the English skills he always believed "opened horizons for you" by listening to American songs, watching a lot of American movies on television and reading books — drolly admitting to even some porn books which helped to improve his English a lot "because it's an interesting subject so you really make an effort to understand."

The snippets of humor continue even as the action shifts to a specific and ominous setting: The Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad several years into the American invasion. The once bustling with Americans hotel has become a deserted outpost, no longer worth attacking and thus a relatively safe meeting place for Adnan, who's a Sunni and his Shiite friend and translating colleague Laith (Sevan Greene). The dreams about the changes they hoped the Americans were going to bring seem to have turned into a nightmare. Laith is in an especially precarious situation and tells Adnan "sometimes, I feel like we're standing in line for a ticket, waiting to die."

The worries hanging over the friends' meeting and the ghostlike atmosphere of the hotel pave the way for reminiscences about what brought these young men to this point in their lives. And so the scene shifts to an earlier time to let us see how the men, and a young Iraqi woman named Intisar (Aadya Bedi) became interpreters.

As the two male interpreters represent all their countrymen who were glad to see the end of Saddam Hussein and eager to help the Americans implement the changes for a new Iraq, so Intisar is a stand-in for young women who've yearned for a less restrictive life. While the men's personalities, their relationship with each other and the Americans dominate the play, Intisar, with her love for Emily Bronte and her small but enduring dream to just be allowed to ride a bicycle through the streets of Baghdad, ends up paying the biggest price for joining up with the Americans and flouting the Islamists by refusing to cover her hair.

Packer might easily be accused of making the Americans the villains of his play and thus negating his insistence that this is not a case of Iraq war bashing. His portrait of the young Iraqis is certainly sympathetic and their likeability is warmly realized by the actors, especially Zuaiter as Adnan. But while Packer certainly doesn't spare the Americans, he also gives us Prescott (the personable and very winning Mike Doyle), a young embassy information officer who has a lot more admirable diplomatic instincts than the distant Ambassador (Ramsey Faragallah) or the other Americans driven to increased paranoid suspicion of all Iraqis by the insurgency outside their Green Zone bunker. Prescott's inability to make a difference adds to the list of this or any war's known and often unrecorded individual tragedies.

Betrayed runs almost two hours without an intermission but director Pippin Parker and his design team maintain the play's dramatic momentum. Given that this war has gone on and on without an intermission, the absence of a break is probably fitting.

Does Packer offer any solution to Adnan and Laith's dilemma? I'm afraid Laith speaks for him when he says "I can't see any solution. I am, how do you say it, hung out to dry."

Is the play a polemic underscoring the futility of a misguided and mismanaged war that has lost even the hearts and minds of people whose hearts and minds didn't need winning because they were already won? Sure it is. But it also fulfills Mr. Packer's mission of telling a story with universal appeal.

Playwright: George Packer
Directed by Pippin Parker.
Cast:Jeremy Beck (Soldier and RSO), Aadya Bedi (Old Woman, Intisar), Mike Doyle (Prescott), Ramsey Faragallah (Cursing Man, Old Man, Dishdasha Man, Eggplant Face, Ambassador), Sevan Greene (Laith) and Waleed F. Zuaiter (Adman).
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes without an intermission
Culture Project at 55 Mercer Street (at Broome), 212-352-3101 or
from 1/25/08; opening 2/06/08; closing 4/13/08,extended to 6/28/08.
Monday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday — Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 3:00 p.m.
Tickets: $25 to $60
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer January 2, 2008

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