There have been a ton of solo shows about various historical figures in which they hold forth about their long and colorful lives, sometimes under the pretext of giving a lecture, sometimes seemingly for no reason at all. But now there seems to be a rash of two-character plays that pair deceased notables with obvious fictional characters designed only to draw the celebrities out and get them talking about themselves.
It was impossible to watch John Logan’s Red at Berkeley Repertory Theatre last season and believe that the painter’s assistant was an actual person with a life outside serving as an excuse to get Mark Rothko talking about himself. (That was fine, though, because Rothko clearly saw the kid the exact same way.)
There are two more of these shows playing right now in the Bay Area’s regional theaters: the world premiere of Lawrence Wright’s Fallaci back at Berkeley Rep and the regional premiere of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop at TheatreWorks. And in fact, both of them are specifically about the talking to the historical figures just before they die.
Fallaci takes as its subject the legendarily combative Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, known for such coups as getting Henry Kissinger to admit on the record that the Vietnam War was a huge mistake and calling the Ayatollah Khomeini a tyrant to his face and whipping off her chador in front of him, calling it “this stupid medieval rag.” Fallaci’s a fascinating subject, to be sure: She was in the Italian resistance as a child during World War II. She spent many years as a war correspondent and was shot three times by Mexican soldiers and left for dead in a massacre of student protestors before the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. After 9/11 she became an outspoken critic not just of Islamic extremism but of Islam in general.
Playwright Lawrence Wright is himself a notable journalist, a New Yorker staff writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of books about Al Qaeda and 9/11 as well as other topics from the recovered memory therapy craze to (most recently) Scientology. Fallaci is basically his way of grappling with a journalistic idol of his in all her frustrating perversity.
His approach is as simple as can be: Have someone show up on Fallaci’s doorstep to interview the famously relentless interviewer. Just to spice things up, Wright makes this fictional journalist an attractive young Iranian-American woman, the better to confront Fallaci about her anti-Muslim screeds. And indeed, the device feels awfully thin in the world premiere staging by Oskar Eustis, artistic director of New York’s Public Theater and formerly of San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre.
The journalist, Maryam, tricks her way into Fallaci’s palatial New York apartment (an impressively lifelike set by Robin Wagner) by pretending to be delivering the shut-in’s Italian newspaper, ambushing her for an interview, but it’s her muttered “stupid old bitch” after she has the door slammed in her face that makes Fallaci grant her a brief chat. Soon they’re zooming through a litany of Fallaci’s greatest hits, revisiting the high points of her Wikipedia page with lots of acidic commentary on what each dictator was like. The green young journalist is there to get Fallaci’s life story to cram into a 700-word article, which is more ludicrous even than trying to get it all into a 90-minute play.
The trouble is, Maryam is a thinly constructed cipher, a problem exacerbated by a weak performance by Marjan Neshat. Her Maryam is pretty and pleasant and well dressed (by Jess Goldstein), but she lacks presence and emotional authenticity. Still, it’s worth sticking with it, at least for a while, just because the central character has such a compelling force of personality. As played by Concetta Tomei, Fallaci is a formidable presence, chain-smoking and badgering her interviewer with advice on how best to grill her for information. With an instinct for mythologizing to make a better story, she’s the kind of person who refers to herself in third person without irony. Such is Fallaci.
Although the play is performed without intermission, it’s divided into distinct acts, and the second half is where the script goes entirely off the rails. When first the two met, Fallaci was out of print and largely forgotten, but in the meantime 9/11 has happened and she’s become a strident voice against the Islamic “invasion” of the Western world. Maryam, meanwhile, has become a published author herself, embedded with soldiers in one of the US’s subsequent invasions, and she’s come to confront Fallaci about the outrageous blanket statements she’s making about anyone who shares Maryam’s heritage.
That’s all fine and expected. But it quickly devolves into a lot of psychoanalysis and seemingly gratuitous revelations, including an incident in Fallaci’s past that’s very sad but has no bearing on any of the issues they’ve been discussing. Most problematic is when it gets into a lot of “tell me about your father” stuff about Maryam, a character too wispy to even have a father, as a way of throwing in some gruesome chapters in Iranian history. It’s all topped off with a sentimental ending that’s ludicrously ill-suited to what’s gone before. If the first half of the play is pleasant but predictable, the second half is just silly, and even Tomei’s Fallaci can’t save it.
Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop has already made a splash elsewhere. Its 2009 premiere in London transferred to the West End and made Hall the first black woman to win an Olivier Award for best new play. It went on to an extended run on Broadway starring Samuel L. Jackson as Martin Luther King Jr. and Angela Bassett as the motel maid with whom he strikes up a flirtatious conversation the night before he’s assassinated at that very same motel.
TheatreWorks sets the scene of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis beautifully with Eric Sinkkonen’s set, a fairly standard but realistic room with two double beds and the exterior visible behind it—a cloudy night sky framed by a jagged black border like a broken mirror, video rainfall and the motel sign standing above. Dr. King has just come back from giving his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, and he’s sent his friend Ralph Abernathy (with whom he shares the room) out for cigarettes—Pall Malls, which he pronounces “Pell Mells.” He calls down to room service for a cup of coffee, and it’s brought up by Camae, a beautiful and spunky maid.
From the moment she enters in TheatreWorks’ lively staging directed by Anthony J. Haney, the tired and disheartened King lights up. Adrian Roberts puts a swagger in King’s step as he flirts playfully with Camae, confident in his silver tongue. And mercifully, he makes a credible MLK while making it feel natural and not like an impression. Although her Southern accent is comically thick, Simone Missick is a delight as Camae—giddily starstruck, assured in her sexuality, impishly playful and hyperaware of her swearing around the reverend (who does it too). “I cuss worse’n a sailor with the clap,” she says. She knows she’s pretty, and he knows how charming he is. “If I was you, I’d be staring at me too,” she says matter-of-factly.
A lot has been said about how this play depicts one of the great hero-saints of the civil rights movement as just a man. He cusses, smokes, fibs to his wife and sometimes cheats on her. We first see him hollering for cigarettes and then watch as he immediately goes and takes a leak. He’s sometimes vain, asking Camae if he should shave off his mustache and making sexy poses for her while smoking a cigarette he bummed from her. In fact he says several times in the show that he’s just a man, in case we missed the point.
That’s hardly the only bit of heavy-handedness in the play. There’s a whole lot of foreshadowing, too. King’s working on a new speech titled “Why America Is Going to Hell,” and he muses, “They’re really going to burn me on the cross for that one.” He says certain things will only happen “over my dead body,” and every time there’s thunder he jumps and clutches his chest, afraid that he’s been shot. That foreshadowing isn’t restricted to him, either. When he jokingly asks Camae, “You with the FBI?” she says, “No, something much bigger.”
The occasional portentous moment is forgivable, however, because so much of the dialogue sparkles with humor, laughter and all sorts of carrying on. There’s even a pillow fight. It seems odd to say it seeing as how he’s about to be assassinated, but it’s just fun to be in the room with them, and the ease and charisma Roberts and Missick bring to the roles has a lot to do with that.
This is another 90 minute play with no intermission, but even though this one’s all in one continuous scene, it’s also very much in two parts, before and after a major revelation about the maid that changes the entire dynamic between her and MLK. That happens about halfway through the play, and it’s a twist that may make a good portion of the audience roll its eyes while others may be right there with it. Either way it presents a problem because it’s the sort of thing that makes it seem like the play’s about to wrap up when it still has quite a way to go, making the show seem longer than it is because it keeps going on long after it seemed like it was ending. Fortunately a lot of the funniest conversations in the play happen after that turning point.
It all gets pretty woo-woo mystical close to the end, with a long poem and video montage grazing over a half-century of subsequent history and pop culture. This spoken-word section pushes the metaphor of passing the baton really, really hard, probably riffing off King’s oft-misquoted statement, “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.” It’s an odd metaphor to push, because he was really pooh-poohing other people’s reducing him to that role rather than claiming it for himself. But in plays as in life, endings are hard, and this play makes that point too. What it ultimately drives home is what we already knew: That sure, Martin Luther King Jr. may have been just a man, but he was one wholly and passionately devoted to his mission and one who made a palpable difference with his work, with his example and—sad as it is to say it—with his sacrifice.
Fallaci: Show #28 of 2013, attended March 13.
The Mountaintop: Show #26 of 2013, attended March 9.