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A CurtainUp Review
The Human Scale

As long as the scale that measures the value of human lives is so badly out of balance, can there ever be anything like peace?— Lawrence Wright reflecting on the inability of the Muslims and Israelis to come to an agreement as to what will be an acceptable ransom for a young Israeli soldier they captured more than three years ago.
Human Scale
Lawrence Wright
As he did three years ago with his performance piece based on his Pulitzer Prize winning The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright has donned his performer/playwright hat. The Human Scale is less a play than a meticulously researched, illustrated lecture forged from his New Yorker essay "Captives" (Nov 9, 2009).

This latest venture into page-to-stage journalism examines the stubbornly ongoing crisis in Gaza. But, scholarly writer that he is, Wright takes us all the way back to 1800 BC when this troubled region's continuous occupation began with its being inhabited by the Cananites according to Old Testament scripture.

The storytelling frame is the unresolved hostage crisis surrounding the capture by Hamas terrorists of Gilad Shalit, a young Israeli soldier who, according to his father, had a studious disposition, loved basketball and excelled at physics. Thanks to Oskar Eustis's direction supported by the excellent work of video designer Aaron Harrow, this is very much a show as well as tell story. Thus we actually get a look at this gentle young man and become eye-witness of the attack that killed several of his fellow soldiers and led to his capture and a ransom demand for 1000 Palestinians prisoners in exchange for Shalit's release. (That demand was made even less acceptable when it was upped to 1400, many of whom were being held as terrorists)

It is the question raised by that ransom that makes this a philosophical treatise as well as a painful account of what Wright aptly describes as "this bitter family quarrel between two similar peoples, blighted by their endless war over a small plot of land." That ransom demand has him ponder a larger issue. He takes us along on his rumination about how Shalit's captors arrived at their 1000 Prisoners ransom figure. "How do you measure the value of a life? Is he {Shalit} really so much more valuable because he's a Jew?"

Ever the fair-minded reporter, and with a touch of wry humor, Wright is no sooner done with citing the Jews as a people living in perhaps one of the most remarkable eras of Jewish accomplishments, than he gives the Muslims their due. To do so he takes us back to the Middle Ages, when so much of the world's advances in science, medicine, literature, art and philosophy accompanied the spread of Islam. He adds specificity to these praises, explaining that it was a Muslims who invented the public hospital, the public library, the university, pioneered modern chemistry, algebra, and astronomy— as well as the banking and trading practices that led to the development of capitalism.

He sums up his praises for these battling factions' similarly in terms of their ability to do great things "the arc of history rises and falls." But as the arc of each group's accomplishmnts rises and falls, so does that of their numerical strength. Wright estimates that "there are now 1.3 billion Muslims, a hundred times as many as there are Jews."

The scene is thus set for taking us back to what led up to the Shalit imprisonment and a better understanding of the intractability of both sides. While Wright is neither an actor or an especially charismatic raconteur, his excellence as a journalist who has strong feelings but never fails to cover every angle and point of view makes for an involving type of live documentary theater.

Given the astutely assembled, sad but true reportage, Wright would hold the stage even without aiming for a bit more dramatic personal involvement. Still, he does manage something of a Wow! moment when he actually falls flat on his back when describing how he fainted from an attack of food poisoning during an interview with a Palestinian. It's a touching moment, not because it showcases Wright's physical agility or transforms what's a lecture into a real play, but because his reflections about the Palestinians' effort to relieve his discomfort lets us see his own deep emotions about the region he's covered so long and intensely: "How inadequate, how feckless, how futile are my good intentions, my attempts at understanding people whose hatred for each other is as unchanging as the sunrise. These same concerned people who are holding my hand and asking if I want water, want a soda, anything to make me feel better, they are the same ones holding Gilad Shalit."

The Human Scale ends, as it begins with an image of the imprisoned Shalit and the hope for peace in this ever at war region dimmer than ever. If you're looking for an optimistic scenario, stay home and watch one of those TV shows where the bad guys get what's coming to them. What Mr. Wright shows is that the bad guys could be good guys, and the good guys needn't turn into bad guys. . . but when it comes to the Gaza region, happy endings seem to be a series of lost opportunities.

The Human Scale
Written and performed by Lawrence Wright
Director:Oskar Eustis
Associate Director: Johanna Gruenhut
Lighting design by Deb Sullivan
Video design by Aaron Harrow
Sound design by Matt Hubbs
Scenic consultation by David Korins
Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist
The Public Theater and 3-Legged Dog at 3LD Art and Technology Center 80 Greenwich Street
From 10/02/10; opening 10/07/10; closing 10/31/10
Tickets $30
Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Running Time: 80 minutes, without intermission
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 10/06/10 press performance
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