Interview with a titan
by Richard Dodds
In theatrical jargon, a two-hander is another way of saying a two-character play. Fallaci is a two-hander with one hand tied behind its back too much of the time.
That both hands are not capable of comparable sparring might seem a given of the situation: a young, inexperienced woman sent by her newspaper's editor to interview a titan among interviewers, Oriana Fallaci. It's an intentional setup, creating a dramatic arc as tables are turned, but that doesn't acquit the often-mechanical dialogue that playwright Lawrence Wright has given the reporter, a challenge for any performer and one that isn't quite met in Berkeley Rep's world-premiere production.
On the other hand, the good news is that the other half of this two-hander – that would be the Fallaci character – feels to have a genuine life force, and with Concetta Tomei's convincing, entertaining performance, Fallaci earns its 95 minutes on the stage.
In addition to his playwriting career, Wright is also an investigative journalist with bestselling books examining such hazardous subjects as Scientology and Al Qaeda, with efforts at dispassionate balance. You can see in Fallaci that he is envious and maybe a little appalled by his subject's disregard for objectivity in pursuit of a good story. If truth has sometimes taken a backseat as well, as her young interrogator suggests, Fallaci's ultimate defense is that "no one has sued me."
In fact, Fallaci was sued for her published attacks on Islamic culture and religion in two post-9/11 works, but the first scene takes place in 2000, and the non-litigants who have famously been pierced by her pen include Fidel Castro, Henry Kissinger, and the Ayatollah Khomeini. One of the play's most vivid scenes comes in Tomei's recreation of her interview with Khomeini, in which she very much inserts herself into the story.
Watching Tomei as the querulous, self-involved Fallaci brings to mind Maria Callas as rendered by Terrence McNally in Master Class. Both are divas past their primes whose proffered help to a young generation is laden with jealous resentment. "You have to find the lie" in any interview subject's self-created story, Fallaci tells her young charge, who quickly picks up on the advice to poke and prod in what become exchanging volleys over a net largely comprised of father issues.
The device of using a journalist character as a means to pull biographical information from the main character is hardly new, but Wright raises the stakes by making the reporter an Iranian-American who lashes out at Fallaci in the post-9/11 scene for using her exalted position to broadly condemn the Islamic world. Although this gives the reporter more of her own identity, Marjan Neshat can only occasionally convince us that she isn't just reciting lines.
The estimable Oskar Eustis, a former SF director who now runs the New York Public Theatre, has staged Fallaci with a simplicity on Robin Wagner's evocatively cluttered apartment set. The simplicity, and the set, give way in the final scene that practically has the title character ascending bodily to heaven, a signal from the playwright that he has decided on which side of history Fallaci belongs.
Fallaci will run at Berkeley Rep through April 21. Tickets are $29-$89. Call (510) 647-2949 or go to www.berkeleyrep.org.