Plays ripped from the headlines are strange beasts: though obviously timely, they’re not necessarily timeless. George Packer’s Betrayed, adapted from his non-fictional New Yorker piece on the plight of native interpreters in Iraq, feels a bit dated, and it’s only been two years since its premiere in Manhattan. But how time flies! The play’s implicit argument — that America invaded Iraq with insufficient knowledge of a radically foreign culture — featured prominently in the run-up to our most recent national election; thus, there’s a sense of déjà vu to the play’s tendentiousness, particularly in its excoriation of the American diplomatic corps. We’ve been here before — on CNN talk shows and moveon.org.
Fortunately, Betrayed, though a debut stage effort by Packer, actually feels like a play, and not just a concatenation of sound bytes; unlike, say, Face the Nation, it plumbs the real human costs of America’s disastrous military and civic policies in Iraq. The plot itself follows the hopes and tribulations of three hapless Iraqi interpreters, from their initial, halting encounters with the occupying Americans to their increasingly complicated familial and political entanglements. After all, for an Iraqi, there’s nothing routine or non-partisan about working in the American embassy: to many fellow Iraqis, they are the betrayers, in collusion with the enemy. And though these interpreters are liminal in numerous senses — as go-betweens between the East and West, the Embassy and the Zones, the Sunnis and the Shiites — it’s their liminality as people that’s most affecting. For much of the play, these reviled interpreters are the walking dead — and they know it.
Arabic Consultant Qusai Alqarqaz has done a superb job with his trio of San Antonian “Iraqis,” who speak convincingly accented English throughout the play. Eric J. Lozano, as bookworm and passionate intellectual Adnan, plays the foil to Jaime Rolando Sanchez’s more jittery, insecure Laith; the strong performances of both actors anchor the production. Kristel Lara (Intisar) demonstrates through a moving first-act monologue that for an Iraqi woman, resistance to oppression is as gestural as it is verbal — and her own gestures speak louder than words.
The Americans are less felicitously cast and played. Paul Singletary is fine as a soldier, yet too gruff and obviously sinister as a Security Officer. Anthony Cortino has the play’s most interesting role — a cross between L. Paul Bremer III and a total doofus — but is never convincing enough as a character actor: Though Cortino’s “Prescott” achieves an Aristotelian reversal from ignorance to enlightenment, he’s rarely as compelling as the Iraqis themselves. Actor Roger Alvarez inhabits a multiplicity of parts, including that of the awkwardly named “Eggplant Face” (a moniker unlikely to bump “Michael” from a list of top baby names). He’s also at the center of the production’s most clichéd scene, in which Prescott desperately confronts Alvarez’s Evil Ambassador in his office; the Ambassador is clearly Evil because … he’s practicing his golf game with a putter. Surely this sort of clunky dramaturgy died in the ’80s.
The Cellar’s shallow three-quarter stage is at best a difficult and cramped space, and it’s no accident that this theater served so effectively as a claustrophobic bunker for Journey’s End. Designers Alfy Valdez and Vernon Push attempt to open the stage with a gorgeous mural and simple set, but are sometimes thwarted by director Gregory Hinojosa’s direction; during the more static scenes, I fear audience members on either side felt, um, betrayed. Like a theater in the round, a thrust stage requires a swirl of staging; for this particular production, I’d definitely opt for tickets in the center.
Opening night’s unannounced and immediate “talkback” allowed neither the play to breathe nor the audience to pee: Producers, please schedule a break between the production of art and the analysis of it. (Besides, not everyone wants to stick around; me, I’d rather kick back than talkback.) But Betrayed itself is worthy of discussion, even at this late date: To the extent to which America is guilty of betraying its closest confidantes — in this case, the noble men and women of Iraq — we’ve a lot to answer for. In some ways, then, the play’s title, though obviously biased, isn’t combative enough, and I’m so bold as to suggest another.
Thomas Jenkins is the Associate Professor and Chair of Classical Studies at Trinity University.