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A CurtainUp Review

Sometimes, usually, in fact, I would say all the time, we are better in our art than we are in our lives. After all, we get to rehearse.— Sarah.
George Bartenieff and Kathleen Chalfant
(Photo: Ari Mintz)
To paraphrase the above quote by Sarah Golden, the pivotal character in Karen Malpede's Prophecy, "Sometimes, usually, in fact, I would say all the time, we are no better at writing anti-war plays than we are at preventing wars."

Typical of the genre known as agitprop theater, Prophecy, is built on a foundation of passionate belief. Instead of aiming for the sort of balanced take on opposite points of view, playwright and director Karen Malpede has given better than equal time to the emotional lives of her characters with war hardly a factor during more than half the play. But don't let that fool you. There's a reason this play is part of an anthology titled Acts of War: Iraq & Afghanistan in Seven Plays.

What at first appears to be a marital drama eventually turns the spotlight on its main theme— the indelible effects of the Vietnam and Iraq wars on the lives of those who fought in it and those who fought against it. The key players in this instance are actress and drama teacher Sarah Golden (Kathleen Chalfant), her husband Alan's (George Bartenieff), and her talented but troubled student Jeremy Thrasher (Brendan Donaldson). When Prophecy shifts gears it explodes into full agitprop mode.

Unlike Malpede's adaptation of Holocaust survivor Victor Klemperer's diary, I Will Bear Witness. which Curtainup reviewed in 2001 (review), this new play is a work of imagination and has a lot more going on. In fact, the playwright has taken on rather too much: two wars. . . an "open" marriage that's not too open to raise issues of jealousy, fertility and parenting. . . teachers as mentors. . .acting as a means of salvation. . . cross-generational and border-crossing relationships.

All this is dished up within a structure that features flashbacks that span forty years between Vietnam in 1970 and New York in 2006. Symbolic links abound. They include echoes of ancient Greek tragedy and biblical myth. A classroom assignment from Sophocles' Antigone focuses on the tragic dilemma of following the conflicting laws of the gods and the nation. The Jewish Alan's impregnating his Lebanese office assistant ties the characters' names and marital situation to the Sarah, Abraham and Hagar myth and also paves the way for exploring the Arab-Israeli conflict (with the sympathy very much with the Arabs). Sarah's abortion-induced infertility during the Vietnam period mirrors the continuing legacy of aborting life in unjust wars. The title itself is a metaphor for tragedy as evolving from events considered to be inevitable.

Despite the ambitiously all-inclusive content and intriguing structure that's leavened with a sprinkling of humorous dialogue, the end result is still what I call a Choir play — one most likely to be seen and applauded by a core audience of people already marching to the same drummer as Malpede. What's more, the path towards the increasingly polemical climax is strewn with some highly implausible and poorly integrated developments.

This limited run production in the tiny East Fourth Street Theater (the 2008 world premiere in London was also in a small venue) does have the decided plus of having Kathleen Chalfant portray Sarah Golden. Unlike her recent role in Beth Henley's insufficiently revised Family Week (review), Chalfant here has the opportunity to make full use of her powers as an actor with enormous emotional range. She's good enough to sidestep the awkwardness of the memory scenes triggered by her interaction with the talented Jeremy; also to keep Sarah's reaction to Alan's infidelity from coming off like a stand-up comic's zingers.

Bartinieff is rather too stodgy as the husband who wants it all. He's best when Mariam (Najia Said), the progeny of his infidelity confronts him. That scene is sheer melodrama but quite compellinglo so.

Ms. Said is another of this production's assets. Besides, gracefully and convincingly playing Mariam, she deftly take on two other roles: Sarah's fiery student and Jeremy's girl friend Miranda Cruz, and Alan's mistress (and her mother) Hala. New York newcomer Brendan Donaldson also multi-tasks ably as the haunted Jeremy (the character who most wins our sympathy) and as Sarah's long ago lover.

Peter Francis James, who replaced the originally cast Andre de Shields, is a fine actor. But in this play he's stuck with its most hard-to-swallow character, the dean of the acting school where Sarah works. As it turns out, he's also an erstwhile wannabe lover and, if Sarah's assumptions are correct, the man who sent her idealistic young lover to his death in Vietnam.

This is obviously a low budget production and Malpede as director has wisely chosen to keep the staging simple. Maxine Willi Klein has created an upstage back wall with two open doorways to facilitate fluid entrances and exits and a center section for the Golden's marital bed. The main playing area has just a small desk and a table and chairs to suggest changes of location without interrupting the flow of the action. Sally Ann Parsons's costumes are helpful for Ms. Said's multiple roles and enhance Ms. Chalfant's persona.

While the playwright deserves credit for not making either her American or Muslim characters caricatures, Prophecy isn't likely to change any opinions about the issues raised — or bring us any closer to a world without a war fought somewhere.

Written and directed by Karen Malpede
Cast: Kathleen Chalfant (Sarah Golden), Peter Francis James (Dean Charles Muffler), George Bartenieff (Alan Golden), Brendan Donaldson (Jeremy Thrasher,Lukas Brightman), Najla Said (Miranda Cruz, Hala Jabar, Mariam Jabar).
Set design: Maxine Willi Klein
Lighting: Tony Giovanetti
Costumes, Sally Ann Parsons
Music and Sound: Arthur Rosen
Stage manager: Jonathan Donahue
Running Time: 2 hours plus an intermission
East 4th Street Theater, 8t E. 4th Street
From 5/27/10; opening 6/04/10; closing 6/20/10.
Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30 pm with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 pm.
Tickets $40.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at June 4th press preview
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