By Lawrence Wright
Directed by Oskar Eustis
Berkeley Repertory Theatre (world premiere)
March 13-April 21, 2013
Fair disclosure: Rather like the young reporter in Lawrence Wright’s “Fallaci,” I regard the late Oriana Fallaci as a journalistic heroine. Her courage, her crusading spirit and, most of all, her writing set a standard that a lowly local reporter could not begin to aspire to, but only admire from afar.
But, what if such a young woman could gain access to the famed presence? Would she bow down in worship or stand up to an idol who kept putting feet of clay into her mouth? Such is the (somewhat contrived) premise of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist-author Wright’s new play, directed by Public Theater head Oskar Eustis and impeccably performed by two fine actresses. At 90 uninterrupted minutes of the women verbally butting heads, it is at once too much and not quite enough.
The feisty, abrasive Fallaci, after being diagnosed and treated for cancer, went into virtual seclusion in the late part of the 20th century. It seemed as though the woman who had thrown herself into war zones and faced down world leaders such as Arafat, Kissinger and the Ayatollah Khomeini was fighting her last battle. New York actress Concetta Tomei plays her as a gravel-voiced curmudgeon, brooding and chain smoking as she listens to Puccini’s “Tosca” and licks her wounds.
Maryam (Marjan Neshat), the young reporter, has braved the lioness in her den to— of all things— write an obituary for the New York Times in advance of Fallaci’s death. Not likely to endear herself to her subject but, somehow, she catches the interest of the older woman and they begin to talk. And talk, and talk and talk. Maryam, although a modern working woman, is Iranian by birth and a half-hearted Muslim. Fallaci has a deep hatred of despotic regimes in general and Islam in particular. And that, to this writer, is the convenient setup and, although it becomes the fulcrum of their relationship, it rings a little false.
At 25, Maryam could have been the daughter that a younger Fallaci lost in miscarriage. Upon her second visit, some years later (after 9/11) when Fallaci, still very much alive, has published an angry screed against Islam, the conversation becomes more emotional — about fathers and daughters, their relationships changed and personalities formed in wartime, lovers and children. Maryam’s final visit is upon the older woman’s death and the play might have been better off without it. It is as if Wright, like many a playwright or standup comic, wasn’t quite sure how to get offstage. Having a white-robed Fallaci walk into the bright light may not have been the wisest choice.
Nevertheless, this play is engaging and absorbing on many levels and beautifully performed by Tomei and Neshat. Some of Wright’s lines are worthy of having been written by his subject (perhaps they were). Accused of being a bit histrionic about her life, Fallaci shoots back: “Everyone lives in the opera but some do not hear the music.” She writes about the powerful but she writes “for those who do not have power.” “You have to find the lie because the lie covers the most important truth.” “I don’t have human children so I give life to my books.”
Oriana Fallaci, once beautiful and famous, slides (kicking and screaming, by the way) into obscurity at last, as we all must. Wright has pulled her back out— and for that her admirers must be grateful.