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The Ally

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 27, 2024

Josh Radnor
Photo by Joan Marcus
"The meaning of a performance depends most of all on who is in the audience." So says one of the characters in Itamar Moses's scorching new play, The Ally, opening tonight at the Public Theater. So, let's take the playwright at his word and say that if you saw Joshua Harmon's Prayer for the French Republic and were caught up in the whirlwind of passionate socio-political arguments that suffuse that play, you probably represent the likely audience for The Ally. Even so, be aware that the temperature is way more incendiary in this new work, in which identity politics fuels much of what amounts to a virulent series of verbal altercations over the course of two hours and forty minutes.

Both Harmon and Moses offer a take on antisemitism, and, as it happens, both plays take place prior to the current explosive situation in the Middle East. As members of the audience, our additional knowledge only intensifies our experience. But where Prayer for the French Republic is narrowly focused on its central theme of anti-Jewish bigotry and its impact on one family, The Ally expands the scope to pit multiple maligned and victimized groups against one another.

To add more kindling to the fire, the play takes place at an unnamed "prestigious university" with expansionist plans into a neighboring "struggling American city." Think about the volatile battle over free speech on college campuses and the consequences on the lives and careers of those caught in the crossfire. That's where we meet the play's central character, Asaf, the ally of the title.

Asaf (Josh Radnor), comfortable in his liberal Jewish atheist skin, has arrived in this college town far from the Berkeley home where his Israeli immigrant parents brought him up among like-minded thinkers. He is here because his wife Gwen (Joy Osmanski), a Korean American woman, has been hired to the position of "University Administrator for Community Relations and External Affairs." In this capacity, she is expected to be the go-between charged with finding a way forward with the university's plans to take over parts of the surrounding community while minimizing the harm to its residents and businesses in a place where a Chinese exchange student was murdered some years back. "But things have changed, right?," she says. "Except that the next time they needed an ambassador to a Black neighborhood they hired me: palatable to all; trusted by none."

For his part, Asaf generally keeps to himself. He is mostly a stay-at-home playwright who specializes in works about "enlightenment Europe," though he does teach a writing course for the university. The triggering event of The Ally, the first domino that starts the cascade of falling dominos, occurs when one of Asaf's former students, a young Black man named Baron (Elijah Jones), approaches him about signing a manifesto in support of Baron's cousin who was killed by the police. Asaf wants to lend his name, but he is thrown by language in what turns out to be a far more wide-ranging document, language that, among other things, condemns Israel's treatment of Palestinians and that uses terminology like "apartheid" and "genocide." Ultimately, though, Asaf's good-guy instincts rule the day, and he agrees to sign it as a show of support, convincing himself that no one will notice his name among hundreds of others.

Madeline Weinstein, Michael Khalid Karadsheh,
and Elijah Jones

Photo by Joan Marcus
But of course people do notice. Soon thereafter he is asked to be the faculty sponsor for a new organization being formed by a pair of 20-year-old college juniors, one of them a progressive Jewish woman, Rachel (Madeline Weinstein), and the other a Palestinian American, Farid (Michael Khalid Karadsheh). Their goal is to use their partnership in order to bring in a controversial speaker to talk about the simmering Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But not to worry, as they assure Asaf his sponsorship will be merely pro forma; they will handle all the details.

And so it goes as Asaf struggles to be everyone's ally: Baron, Rachel, Farid, his wife Gwen. Then there are those confrontations with Reuven (Ben Rosenfield), a PhD student in Jewish History and Judaic Studies, and Nakia (Cherise Boothe), a Black woman who is an iconoclastic community organizer and the creator of the manifesto that Asaf was originally asked to sign. To further complicate things, as if they weren't already complicated enough, it turns out that Nakia and Asaf are not strangers to one another, and their shared history colors their every tense conversation.

If you haven't gathered by now, The Ally is a play of ideas and conflict, a steady stream of point and counterpoint amid mounting tensions. Theatrical design elements are few. There is no set to speak of, basically just a couple of chairs; all eyes need to be focused on the characters who are there to serve as conduits for the never-ending debate.

The arguments that fly back and forth are smartly constructed, each of them potentially convincing ("the meaning of a performance depends most of all on who is in the audience"), and here the performances under Lila Neugebauer's direction are passionate and razor sharp. In my capacity as an audience member, I was mostly taken by the youngest characters, Rachel and Farid, who represent with absolute certitude their perspective on the world. If you did see Prayer for the French Republic, Madeline Weinstein as Rachel will remind you of the young progressive American visitor to the French family, while Michael Khalid Karadsheh as Farid will grab you by the throat with his passionate monolog about what it is like to live as a Palestinian in Gaza.

In the end, nothing is truly resolved. How could it be? What is an ally anyway? Is it enough to lend a sympathetic ear, to sign a petition, to make a donation? When must we choose sides and take action? As the rest of the characters leave the scene to join a protest march, Asaf is left alone on stage to assimilate all he has been confronted with, and, as we leave the theater, so are we.

The Ally
Through March 24, 2024
Public Theater
Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street (at Astor Place), New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: