Reviews

The Ally ****

By: Samuel L. Leiter

February 27, 2024: The Ally, a new play at the Public Theater by Itamar Moses, a Tony winner for the book of the musical The Band’s Visit (2018), is bitingly relevant and thought-provokingly gripping, but has its flaws. Among other things, it is, at a bit more than two hours and 35 minutes, perhaps 15 minutes longer than need be; its characters stretch credibility with their superior knowledge and articulateness; the dramatic premise sometimes seems more an artificial springboard than a convincing situation; and there’s a philosophically diffuse final scene, reportedly the third in a series of attempts at a suitable conclusion. Also, because its production was delayed by the pandemic, the play’s timeliness—it’s set in September and early October 2023—is notably affected by the absence of what, had it been included, would have forced a thorough rewrite. 

Josh Radnor, Madeline Weinstein, Cherise Boothe, and Michael Khalid Karadsheh.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

February 27, 2024: The Ally, a new play at the Public Theater by Itamar Moses, a Tony winner for the book of the musical The Band’s Visit (2018), is bitingly relevant and thought-provokingly gripping, but has its flaws. Among other things, it is, at a bit more than two hours and 35 minutes, perhaps 15 minutes longer than need be; its characters stretch credibility with their superior knowledge and articulateness; and the dramatic premise sometimes seems more an artificial springboard than a convincing situation. Also, because its production was delayed by the pandemic, the play’s timeliness—it’s set in September and early October 2023—is notably affected by the absence of what, had it been included, would have forced a thorough rewrite. 

Madeline Weinstein, Michael Khalid Karadsheh, and Elijah Jones.

On the other hand, there’s no currently running play that is—for political and news junkies, at any rate—anywhere near being as compellingly dynamic, intellectually stimulating, argumentatively immersive, and educationally rich. Once its engine starts revving The Ally will have you leaning in to catch every word and follow every disputed twist and turn as it debates not only the history of and tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, but the relation of that conflict to the cause of police violence against Black men in America. Other issues also crowd the playwright’s agenda, but these are the principal ones. Regardless of the fiery rhetoric they spark, however, the play can’t help being shadowed by the unmentioned war in Gaza.

The inciting incident stems from a decision requested of Prof. Asaf Sternheim (Josh Radnor in a breakthrough performance), a troubled adjunct professor of writing at an unnamed, elite college. Like the playwright himself, Asaf, in his 40s, is the son of Israeli immigrants. He’s a politically progressive Jewish atheist who teaches a single course yet he happens not only to be as fully informed about Israel as any history professor, but able to argue about it with the penetrating detail of a Talmudic scholar.  

Joy Osmanski

His Korean-American wife, Gwen Kim (Joy Osmanski), whose wordily loaded job title is University Administrator for Community Relations and External Affairs, provides him with a domestic situation that helps to contextualize him as someone trying to come to grips both with the disappointments of his own life (he’s obviously too brilliant to be so professionally limited) and that of the larger world. Gwen’s urging that he find something outside his bubble in which to become involved triggers a decision that turns his life around.

This happens when Asaf is asked to sign a manifesto presented to him by a Black senior, Baron Prince (Elijah Jones, sincerity itself), supporting the cause of Baron’s cousin, shot by the police for a car theft of which he was innocent, the incident captured on video. (Surprisingly, we never hear the words “Black Lives Matter” or “BLM”.) Asaf hesitates because he finds it difficult to reconcile the manifesto’s citation of Israel for both genocide and apartheid, while alluding only to France’s treatment of Mali among other nations accused of human rights abuses. As he questions his wife: “Well don’t you think that’s weird? That it doesn’t say . . . stop aid to India over Kashmir, or how they treat their Muslims? Or sanction China over Tibet, or Taiwan, or the Uyghu—?” 

Michael Khalid Karadsheh and Madeline Weinstein.

Soon, his signature leads to his being asked by two other student activists, the Jewish Rachel Klein (Madeline Weinstein, vibrantly alive) and the Palestinian Farid El Masry (Michael Khalid Karadesheh, intensely committed), to serve as a faculty sponsor in support of a Jewish anti-Zionist critical of Israeli policies to speak on campus. This, of course, feeds off today’s ongoing cancel culture conflict regarding free speech in cases of who can and cannot be invited to speak on college campuses. (It’s unlikely, by the way, that students would seek the sponsorship of something so controversial from an adjunct, whose campus power is lower than zero.)

Consequently, Asaf finds himself at the center of a firestorm, defending himself against charges of antisemitism from Reuven Fisher (Ben Rosenfield, blistering), an intellectually supercharged PhD student of Jewish history and Judaic Studies who delivers a lengthy, searingly hot-blooded diatribe that will burn your ears off. But it’s only one of such monologic gems delivered in the course of the play, one disputatious scene in particular forcing Asaf to face off against four antagonists, Farid, Rachel, Baron, and Nakia Clark (Cherise Boothe, defiantly combative), an African American community organizer involved in Baron’s project. Nakia was Asaf’s lover twenty years ago, and her involvement ties Asaf’s personal life to his political one, especially when it seems to stir feelings of jealousy in Gwen.

Moses ends the play in a synagogue near which a protest is about to begin on behalf of the Black man slain by the police. Asaf—torn over his commitment to Israel—seeks advice from a rabbi (cast, for several possible reasons, with the actress who plays Nakia) on what he should do. What follows—reportedly the last of three conclusions by Moses—is deliberately vague. Because it will surely be a topic of after-the-show discussion (I’m still talking about it), I’ll add only that, as the sounds of the protest get ever louder, the house lights brighten, suggesting, perhaps, that the audience itself is complicit in Asaf’s choice. 

Josh Radnor

No matter how many political shows (or campaign debates) you may watch on TV, where proponents of different viewpoints go hammer and tongs at one another, you’re unlikely to find any discussions as fairmindedly multi-sided as those in The Ally. The discussants may pull their hair, roll their eyes, shake their heads, or stare goggle-eyed at their opponents’ points—watch Radnor’s Asaf listen with every frustrated pore to what he’s hearing—but they at least express themselves without shouting over each other, as is too often the case in real life. 

The Ally, intent on both-sidesism (for every argument there’s a counter-argument, for every truth a counter-truth), contains too many conflicting ideas to mirror them here. And there will, nevertheless, surely be many informed playgoers who will want to get up and argue themselves when they hear things they don’t agree with; I also wouldn’t be surprised to see essays countering what Moses’s characters broach. No matter where you stand, however, The Ally presents superb actors engaged in highly charged, thoroughly researched, expertly honed opinions about some of the most sensitive topics of our time; that, I aver, is hard to debate. 

Ben Rosenfield and Josh Radnor.

Lila Neugebauer (Appropriate) directs with spirit and clarity, getting from her cast—dressed by Sarita Fellows in character-defining everyday wear—uniformly energetic, thoroughly committed performances. They convince you that they not only fully understand what they’re talking about, but—at least while they’re speaking—are true believers. 

Under Reza Behjat’s carefully modulated lighting (with the house lights only slightly dimmed), scenes shift merely by actors moving on or off in full view of one another on Lael Jellinek’s three-quarters round space, carpeted in pale beige. Only a bare minimum of furniture is used—usually the space is empty—before a semicircular wall covered by tan, institutional-type paneling, holding just a single door. Even the two thick pillars standing on the Anspacher stage have been perfectly integrated into what serves as a perfect forum for intellectual interchange. 

Michael Khalid Karadsheh

One wonders where Moses might have taken The Ally had he introduced the Gaza war. The subject is so fraught it might have devoured the original play in one bite. But, even without it, what’s talked about in The Ally provides a truly thoughtful political drama, one that chooses not to confront the issues metaphorically but head on through the collision of rhetorical discourse. Fasten your seat belts.

The Ally
Public Theater/Anspacher Theater
425 Lafayette Street, NYC
Through March 24, 2024
Photography: Joan Marcus

Cherise Boothe 
Elijah Jones