By Tulis McCall

Itmar Moses is balancing on a razor’s edge with his new play “The Ally” now at the Public Theater.  The story takes place in September and early October of 2023 on an unidentified college campus.  “Early October” being the operative phrase here, because it takes place before October 7.  The reason this factoid is critical is because this play examines in minute detail the relationship of Israel to Gaza.  Are the Israelis doing to the Palestinians what Hitler did to them or are they the stewards of a homeland where the Jewish are safe in spite of the fact that they are surrounded by Arab countries.

I am reminded of a movie I saw years ago.  It was a Canadian film.  Two rabbis are walking home through a park on a summer afternoon.  They are exchanging pleasantries when a rain storm hits.  They take shelter in a gazebo.  Soon their discussion turns to matters of theology, and the two men are on different sides.  I cannot remember what the exact subject was, I only remember the marvel of the switch from a mild discussion into a full blown argument.  There was yelling and gnashing of teeth.  There were hot tempers and indignation.  Blood pressure was escalated no doubt.  This looked like the end of a friendship.

After a bit, however, the rain abated.  As it did, the two men de-escalated the exchange, stepped out of the gazebo and continued their walk, chatting anmiably as they had before.

That scenario does not quite play out here.  What does is the fact that Judaism is shown to be a religion of discourse.  As one of the students on the college campus that is the center of events says:  “… I don’t know about you but to me Judaism has always been about questioning. You know? About wrestling with the big ethical and moral quandaries of the day and then admitting none of us really knows the answer. It’s a whole religion built on questions, or at least I thought it was: we argue about everything, even with ourselves. Get two of us in a room, you get four opinions.”

Now this is a very fine observation, but what follows is the actual demonstration of this quote.

A new Jewish/Palestinian student organization on said campus is in need of a faculty advisor so that they can be allowed to hold meetings and invite controversial authors to speak.  They seek out Asaf Sternheim (Ben Rosenfield) who is a not very busy writer and professor.  He is all for this idea and accepts on the condition that he can read their “Manifesto” first.  Funny thing, it has been authored by his ex girlfriend Nakia Clark (Cherise Boothe) who just happens to be living in the same town.  They have not seen each other in decades – what ARE the odds??? The manifesto is a reaction to a police killing of a black man suspected of stealing cars.  There is a video, and the only person on the planet who has not watched it is Sternheim.

When Sternheim reads the Manifesto he questions the line item that singles out Israel as a perpetrator of genocide (remember this is BEFORE October 7) and that pulls him up short.  Why Israel alone?

There ensues debate of Olympian dimensions.  And Sternheim is in the exact middle.  Reuven Fisher (Ben Rosenfield) is on the side of Israel.  Farid El Masry (Michael Khalid Karadsheh) is onto the side of Palestine as is  his fellow student, ally and organizer Rachel Klein (Madeline Weinstein).  Sternheim’s wife Gwen Kim (Joy Osmansky) is on her own side of her job as a Community Relations Administrator.  Nakia is joined by Baron Prince (Elijah Jones) in defending the manifesto as is.

The four sides circle Sternheim like tag teams.  Radnor is made of stern stuff.  He never leaves the stage and spends almost half his time listening – actively listening – to everyone else stew in their own juices.  In the end there is no answer bestowed on us.  What remains, carefully crafted by Moses and director Lila Neugebauer,  is a boatload of questions.

THE ALLY by Itmar Moses, Directed by Lila Neugebauer

WITH Cherise Boothe, Elijah Jones(Baron), Michael Khalid Karadsheh(Farid), Joy Osmanski(Gwen), JoshRadnor (Asaf), Ben Rosenfield(Reuven), and Madeline Weinstein (Rachel

The production includes scenic design by Lael Jellinek, costume design by Sarita Fellows, lighting design by Reza Behjat, sound designby Bray Poor.

Through March 24th.  Tickets HERE