Fallaci fascinates at Berkeley Rep, even if her play doesn’t

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Concetta Tomei (left) is renowned journalist Oriana Fallaci and Marjan Neshat is Maryam, a young journalist in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world premiere of Fallaci by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright. Below: Tomei’s Fallaci ponders a life spent fighting those with power on behalf of those without it. Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com

Oriana Fallaci was a fascinating, riveting person in real life, a crusading, eviscerating journalist whose intensity often made her part of the story. In journalist and playwright Lawrence Wright’s world-premeire play Fallaci at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Fallaci lives again, and true to form, she’s a compelling personality whose intelligence, drive and complicated emotional life provide an abundance of drama.

As played by Concetta Tomei, Fallaci may be dealing with illness by shutting herself into her New York apartment, but she’s still ferocious and prickly. When a young journalist from the New York Times wheedles her way into Fallaci’s apartment to snag an interview with the reclusive writer, Fallaci reluctantly warms to the reporter as an audience for her vehemence, her humor and her wisdom.

Discussing her famous interview with the Ayatollah Khomeini, Fallaci says she failed that day because she didn’t do what every journalist must do, and that is expose the lie. She got reactions from the man she describes as “Moses as carved by Michaelangelo,” but she didn’t get “past the holy robes and see the man inside.” Her strategy, she adds, was to talk to him in the most effective way she could: as his mother.

Giving lessons in interviewing to the 25-year-old Maryam (Marjan Neshat), Fallaci insists that questions must be confrontational and contradictory and they should penetrate deep into the heart of the subject. “Yes, it’s coitus,” she says, ultimately an “act of love.”

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The first chapter of this 90-minute one-act takes place a year before the events of 9/11, the second chapter three years after, when Fallaci has newfound notoriety for her books decrying Islam, and the final chapter closer to Fallaci’s death in 2006. As long as Tomei’s Fallaci holds court, serves tea and smokes cigarette after cigarette in her book- and memento-stuffed apartment (beautiful design by Robin Wagner and warm lighting by Michael Chybowski), all is well in the land of Fallaci. There’s some beautiful writing, as when Fallaci discusses the seeming contradiction of loving life and not being able to stay away from war. “When the danger is over and nothing has happened to you, you feel twice alive.”

But when Wright delves away from the documentary and into the emotional, the play, under the direction of Oskar Eustis, is much less convincing. The biggest problem is that Tomei’s gripping performance is the only credible thing on stage. Maryam is simply a device, a means through which Oriana pontificates, educates and makes a case for a lifetime of work she describes as a fight against those with power on behalf of those without.

Maryam, an Iranian-American with deep roots in Iran’s political struggles, is a too-convenient target for Fallaci’s anti-Islam screeds, and Wright wants to have it all by making the women friends and enemies. It’s just not convincing, and Neshat’s performance as Maryam is callow to the point of annoyance. The character’s emotional life comes across as programmed rather than felt, especially as the play’s chronology progresses. By the end, I couldn’t help wishing this had been a one-woman enterprise focused solely on Fallaci herself.

[bonus interview]
I talked to journalist and playwright Lawrence Wright for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Larewnce Wright’s Fallaci continues through April 21 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$89 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

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