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.

ACT’s Perloff aims Higher

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Andrew Polk (left) is Michael Friedman, Concetta Tomei (center) is Valerie Rifkind and Ben Kahre is Isaac Friedman in the world premiere of Carey Perloff’s Higher, an American Conservatory Theater production at the Theater at Children’s Creativity Museum. Below: René Augesen as architect Elena Constantine shares her work with Polk’s Michael, a renowned architect and Elena’s boyfriend. Photos by Kevin Berne

This is the season for artistic directors sharing their writing with their audiences. Tony Taccone at Berkeley Repertory Theatre has actually done it twice this season with Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup and the current Ghost Light.

Now American Conservatory Theater’s Carey Perloff is sharing her fourth full-length play as a special non-subscription production at the Theater at the Children’s Creativity Museum (formerly Zeum). In both cases, the artistic directors are making bold moves to put their work out there ̶ a brave gesture, to say the least. And they’ve both wisely handed over the directorial reins to trusted cohorts. In Taccone’s case it’s Jonathan Moscone and in Perloff’s case, it’s ACT Associate Artistic Director Mark Rucker.

The last time I saw a Perloff play it was The Colossus of Rhodes at the same theater in 2003 (directed by Perloff as well). I didn’t like that play much. It seemed an intellectual exercise in out-Stopparding Tom Stoppard. Higher is a much more satisfying and entertaining play, a drama with substance and classy soap operatics.

Perloff’s fascinating with architects is evident throughout as she follows two acclaimed designers, one at the height of his notoriety and the other just beginning hers. Unbeknownst to each other, these two architects are competing to build a memorial in Israel on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where 22 people were killed in a bus explosion.

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The two architects also happen to be lovers, spending time in hotel rooms as they cross paths on their way to building things in places like Dusseldorf and Abu Dhabi. The play leans heavily on the dramatic irony that the audience knows the lovers are also competitors long before both of them find out.

In addition to her love of the pomposity and purity of the architectural world, Perloff also seems fascinated with the idea of balancing work life and personal life and committing fully to a project (a heart thing) and just doing it to get it done (an ego thing).

Director Rucker allows the action to bounce between New York and Israel with ease (helped by the simplicity and elegance of Erik Flatmo’s set). The dramatic line is clean if at times contrived. But the substantial performances help ease the occasional strain of credulity. René Augesen is her usual marvelous self as Elena, an up-and-coming architect, a woman in what is mostly a man’s game. She’s smart and emotional and makes Elena a woman all the more appealing for all her complications.

Andrew Polk is Michael Friedman, a high-powered, world-famous architect and, if we assess him by what we see, a real asshole. He seems to really love Elena, but how much can an egomaniac really love someone? He certainly can’t handle being a responsible dad to his grown son (the charming Ben Kahre). His attitude toward memorials is, not surprisingly, all about him, just as most things end up being all about him. He has a bit of an attitude shift, but it’s not quite as believable as it should be.

The carbonation in this two-hour production comes from Concetta Tomei, an absolute delight as feisty Valerie Rifkind, a widow as smart as she is rich (and she’s extremely rich). Tomei looks fabulous in the elegant costumes by David F. Draper, and she commands the stage as easily with broad comedy as she does with subtle body language.

As the money behind the design competition, Valerie could be a sideline player relegated to turning the gears of the plot, but the character is much more interesting and, thankfully, much more present than that.

Higher holds audience interest for several reasons ̶ first, we want to see who wins the design competition; then we want to see Michael knocked off his architect celebrity pedestal. We’re satisfied on both counts, for the most part. Perloff pulls a couple punches at the end, but she remains true to her characters and makes the play ultimately more about character than plot.

[bonus interview]
All interviews should be as delightful as the one I had with Concetta Tomei, who talked about her stage and television career. Read the San Francisco Chronicle story here.


Carey Perloff’s Higher continues an extended run through Feb. 25 at the Theater at the Children’s Creativity Museum, 221 Howard St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$65. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.