Tuesday, March 11, 2008

'O Jerusalem' a Thrilling Journey

From: AP Online

Date: March 18, 2003

Author: Justine Glanville

Dateline: NEW YORK It's true that "O Jerusalem," an exhilarating new play by A.R. Gurney at off-off-Broadway's Flea Theater, seems especially timely because of its subject matter.

After all, it touches on many of the issues now preoccupying people around the world: the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East, American foreign policy, terrorism.

But at least in this expert production, Gurney's play manages to reach beyond its topical premise to pack a big, heartbreaking wallop. This is not a story about anything so cold as politics. Above all, it's about a man struggling to balance his ideals and personal relationships against a high-pressure career.

Although it lasts only 90 minutes, "O Jerusalem" feels like an epic, partly due to its unusual structure. It opens sometime in the future, when a theater troupe has discovered a lost play set around the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. They perform only excerpts from the work _ described as "long, rambling and tormented" _ and summarize the parts they consider boring.

The play-within-a-play structure allows Gurney and company to cover an astonishing amount of ground. With the flip of a scenery card and an announcement by one of the actors, scenes switch from Washington, D.C., to Tunisia to New England and back.

At the center of all that globe-trotting is Hartwell Clark (Stephen Rowe), a backslapping oil magnate appointed to be a U.S. envoy to the Middle East. His job exposes him to anti-U.S. sentiment abroad, and he begins to turn against capitalism. As Hartwell's new convictions take root, he gives in to his long-repressed love for Sally (Priscilla Shanks), an information officer.

Gurney works with a wider geographic and cultural lens than usual. His previous plays have dealt mostly with domestic turmoil among white, upper-class Protestants; here, although the conflicts are still personal, they have global repercussions. And one of the main characters is decidedly nonwhite: Amira (Rita Wolf), a Palestinian activist, completes a kind of love triangle with Sally and Hartwell.

Wolf, Rowe, Shanks and two swing performers (Chaz Mena and Mercedes Herrero) all deliver vital performances, helped in no small part by Gurney's crackling dialogue. Each scene pulses with life _ the sign of a playwright, a cast and a director (Jim Simpson) working in complete unity.

Like anything truly alive, "O Jerusalem" isn't always tidy. The relationship between Sally and Hartwell isn't fully developed, and the play ends on a preachy and falsely tragic note.

But like Stephen Adly Guirgis' "Our Lady of 121st Street," it has a scattershot energy and an ear for emotionally charged situations that make it totally engrossing.

When a play has those assets, it doesn't need current events to be relevant.

No comments: