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A CurtainUp Review
O Jerusalem by Elyse Sommer

Do you love your country -- FBI agent during a background check on a Foreign Affairs officer.
Sometimes ---.Sally, the diplomat's friend I think US greatest country of all and I love it every minute- -- FBI agent
That's why I sometimes don't --- Sally

Stephen Rowe and  Priscilla Shanks
Stephen Rowe and Priscilla Shanks
When terrorist planes struck the nearby twin towers, the tiny Flea Theater responded by mounting an oddly healing new play called The Guys. That two-character piece had an unprecedented run which helped to keep the Flea financially afloat. It moved on to Los Angeles where it was also a hit and was made into a movie.

Now, with a monumental world event once more upon us, the Flea has mounted another timely play. Unlike Anne Nelson, for whom The Guys was a first playwriting effort, O Jerusalem finds the prolific A. R. Gurney, best known as the chronicler of life among the upper middle class WASP population, wrestling with world-wide political issues.

As its title implies, O Jerusalem is about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, a struggle as resistant to neat play endings as it is to solutions via diplomacy or bullets. And so, while Gurney has no startling new insights to offer, he has brought his usual wit and dramaturgical expertise to bear on a painful and troubling subject. In addition to creating a diverse and interesting cast of characters to present the various points of view, he's whipped up not one but two possible endings -- both, as befits fiction, are more the stuff of pipe dreams than reality.

Realizing the difficulties of making a problem play entertaining as well as thought provoking -- and with his usual savvy understanding of the theatrical market place -- Gurney cleverly conceived his play to be presented with hand-held scenic props and with two of the five actors to play a variety of male and female characters. According to the Flea's associate producer, Nella Vera, director Jim Simpson briefly toyed with making the production more high-tech but the company's budget and the size of the venue brought him back to the playwright's original intent. As it turns out, that intent and the way Simpson has choreographed its execution is what gives O Jerusalem its punch and humor.

The painted scenic posters suggesting locales ranging from DC to Tunisia to Dubai and New Hampshire are fun and effective. So are the swing characters expetly played by Mercedes Herrero and Chaz Mena.

Having the characters often and amusingly break the fourth wall and comment on past and future and skipped over events is another deft touch for maintaining a brisk tempo. It is this combination of informal staging and the actors switching from being in the play to acting as narrator-interpreters that are O Jersulem's strength more than its plot which at its most concise could be summed up with this lengthy title: The Adventures of Newly Minted Middle East Diplomat Hartwell Clark (Stephen Rowe) and his relationships with his rich wife (one of Herrero's multiple roles), long-time confidante (Priscilla Shanks, aptly named Sally since this is something of an international When Harry Met Sally ), and his erstwhile Palestinian flame Amira (Rita Wolf).

Stephen Rowe, who just spent a long stretch on Broadway in Edward Albee's The Goat, is well cast as Hartwell, the former oil executive who parlays having been George W. Bush Yale classmate into an appointment as an assistant diplomat for Near Eastern Affairs ("Near" rather than "Mid" because it's "nearer than you think"). Rita Wolf, who was a frustrated librarian in Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul is once again a veritable seething cauldron of rage as the Palestinian woman who's less interested in having another romantic fling with Hartwell than using him for her own political purposes. Priscilla Shanks is wry and charming as Sally, whose years of negotiating her way through the cultural clashes between her Jewish mother and Irish father prepared her for her job as a US communications officer. Her feelings for Hartwell are exposed just enough to make a happy ending (at least in personal terms) a distinct possibility.

Unlike John Patrick Shanley's recent absurdist take on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Dirty Story, Gurney leans more heavily on the conventions of romantic comedy. It's clear that he has his heart in the right place and given the popularity of the recent Off-Broadway production of his revised ten-year-old The Fourth Wall (also an issue play, though USA based), his political writing may well turn out to be his most fruitful. In one of several particularly affecting scenes the petite Amira, paralyzed by tragic news, is helped out of a chair by an Israeli taxi driver (Chaz Mena).

If you look closely, much of what happens stretches credulity -- for example, the speed with which Hartwell is appointed to his post; his transformation from a typically full of himself WASP womanizer into passionate idealist; and having the son of an educated Palestinian Christian like Amira involved with a Muslim terrorist group. Such holes may make this a Swiss cheese of a play but it's nevertheless a tasty meal with excellent dialogue, acting and staging to provide the mustard. The current lonely path being pursued by this country gives a sadly ironic twist to Gurney's basic theme that "We're all in this together."

The Fourth Wall
Dirty Story
The Guys

Written by A.R.Gurney
Directed by Jim Simpson
Cast: Stephen Rowe, Priscilla Shanks, Rita Wolf; also Mercedes Herrero and Chaz Mena as swing woman and man.
Set Design and Lighting Design: Kyle Chepulis
Production Graphics: David Prittie
Props: Beth Whitney Costume Design: Sarah Beers
Original Music and Sound Design: Lindsay Jones
Running time: 90 minutes, without intermission
Flea Theater, 41 White Street ( Church and Broadway, three blocks south of Canal, close to the 1, 9, N, R, Q, W, 6, A, C and E subway lines) 212/226-240
2/26/03 -4/19/03 opening 3/18/03.
Wednesday through Saturday at 7pm, matinee Saturday at 3pm. with additional performances on , March 9 and March 10 at 7pm. March 18-April 19: Tuesday through Saturday at 7pm, matinee Saturday at 3pm. -- $15 for previews and $40 after March 18.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 3/14/03 press performanceperformance
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