About ten minutes into Lawrence Wright's, Camp David, we find President Jimmy Carter, on his knees, praying. "Please don't let me screw this up," Carter beseeches God, while acknowledging that the road ahead will be challenging. So challenging in fact, it could cost him his already shaky Presidency.
An Arab and Jew also pray, each man in the manner of his own religious tradition and language. Three men of different religions, asking their God for something, perhaps, even the same thing – to face the impending challenge and not screw it up.
Of course, these aren't just any Arab and Jew. They're sworn enemies, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. And the challenge they face is monumental. They've been brought together at the U.S. Presidential country retreat, Camp David, by Carter in an effort to negotiate peace between the warring countries. An effort that, in 1978, resulted in the framework for the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and some interim agreements about the possibility of Palestinian self-rule and ultimate status.
It's these almost two weeks of grueling arguments, tantrums, exasperations and endless negotiations that resulted in the agreement that comprises Wright's wonderfully performed, fly on the wall of history play, directed by Oskar Eustis.
What exactly happened in the room where it happened? Wright imagines for us, giving us a show that, while suffering from some balance issues, entertains and informs in a tight one-act of suspenseful 'will they or won't they,' talky but not too talky, tension-filled drama. This despite our already knowing the outcome.
With a theater in the round stage, completely bare save for a fabulous overhead, hovering, upside down diorama of Camp David and some blocks that stand in for seats and tables, Wright's play relies solely on character to bring the story to life.
Carter (Stephen Thorne) dressed in jeans and quick to ask everyone to call him Jimmy, spends most of the play tearing his hair out at how poorly the summit is going. "I'm negotiating with ghosts here," he complains describing how much history between the two sides he's trying to overcome.
His intentions are pure, so is his heart. Yes, he admits that he wants peace not just for peace's sake, but because it's in the economic and strategic interests of the United States. But without question, the Carter Wright gives us is a deeply religious man, wanting to do good.
Sadat (Elijah Alexander) comes ready for peace, with a proposal no less. But it's a take take take proposition that goes nowhere out of the gate. Wright softens his demeanor quickly, portraying him as charming and willing to negotiate. Yes, he's attacked Israel before, but that was retaliation after his land was stolen in a previous war. Yes, in frustration he utters some anti-Semitic sentiments, backed by the Koran, but that was in frustration, not his personal opinion.
Wright attempts to show a darker side of Sadat, but ultimately, the likability baked in the character rises to the top.
Begin on the other hand (Jordan Lage) is all prickly pear. Intractable, stiff, negative, belligerent and polite but cold, Begin is unlikable from the outset. And not without cause. Wright takes pains to point out the many atrocities his administration green-lighted, not the least of which was the murder of Palestinians who wouldn't forcibly leave their homes in Israel without resistance.
No one is arguing historical facts here, Begin did what Begin did. He should be held accountable. But for the drama of the play, portraying him as a one-note bad guy tips the balance from two leaders, both flawed, trying to come to an understanding to a 'root for the good guy' proposition.
To be fair, Wright does give us a lot of back story on Begin to explain his personality. We learn of his imprisonment, interrogation, and torture in Siberia by the Soviet authorities. We hear stories of his family dying in the Holocaust. How this sharpened his belief that it was his job to never put Jewish lives at risk again. We should be moved by these revelations, a least a little bit, but it's a blood from a stone situation. So off-putting has Wright, or perhaps Eustis' direction made Begin, that even his emotional stories freeze over before we can feel any of their burn.
Conversely, we don't get enough time with or knowledge about Sadat. Just snippets. He has a sick son. He too was in jail. He walks for exercise. These facts tossed out without much elaboration or insight into the man himself.
What Wright does get correct, however, is his focus on the Carters. Yes, plural. Perhaps Wright's best rabbit in the hat trick is his inclusion of Rosalynn Carter (Rebecca Brooksher), here portrayed as warm and gracious but also as savvy coach and motivator for her President husband.
Plays about meetings/negotiations can be difficult. How does one steer the clear from dry as dust-ville. Wright takes his characters on a field trip to Gettysburg, has them attend a party and a Shabbat dinner. But even at those more relaxed moments, the difficult negotiations continue in some form.
But bring Rosalynn into the action, and the whole tenor of the play changes. We laugh as she smartly times tea service to interrupt a particularly ornery discussion between the two sides. We marvel as she metaphorically kicks President Carter in the behind when he whines about how things are going. Her tough love reveals of how poorly Jimmy's doing in the polls and their dire financial situation show us a marriage where Jimmy may be President, but Rosalynn is in charge on the flip side.
There's no partisan politics here. What Wright shows us is a salt of the earth American couple, she the General, he the out-front Sargent, trying to change the world for the better.
They're the soul of the show, allowing audiences, especially American audiences, that perhaps know very little about ridiculously complex Middle East issues or perhaps don't even care to understand, to have something familiar to hold onto. Someone to rally around as the crazy politics play out.
The Alley's production is, in fact, a rework from a previous incarnation of the show that premiered in Washington. One of the major changes made was to include two additional characters into the mix. A right-hand man for the Arab and Israeli leaders. Opposite in their narrative purpose.
Mohammed Ibrahim Kamel (Sam Khazai), Sadat's Foreign Minister, foreshadows the Egyptian unhappiness over the negotiation outcome. Give in one iota to the Israeli's, he feels, and it's game over for Sadat.
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Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan (Mark Zimmerman), a former general responsible for many of the wars waged against Arab nations including Egypt, on the other hand, tries to soften Begin's stance on the land for peace trade. Give up some of what we took, he advises. Peace is worth the sacrifice.
Both provide a nice foil to their leader's position, despite being nothing more than one-dimensionally written.
But hey, when it comes to Middle East peace negotiations, if you were to give every personality and issue their due, we'd be watching a play that would last as long as there's been tension in the region. And no one can afford the parking fees for that.
Instead, we get an intriguing snapshot, lopsided though it may be in the telling. And, thanks to the steady hand of Rosalynn in the final scenes, we're left with an understanding of the legacy of the accord and how it still echoes today.
Performances continue through March 15 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $47-$74.