In their valiant efforts to produce new work, Berkeley Rep occasionally has some misses, and their latest mainstage play, Fallaci, is one of them. The play centers on the life and provocative persona of Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, and it was written by esteemed New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright. It's having its world premiere here, and its subject matter is undeniably compelling, however it feels a bit too didactic and formulaic for its own good.*
The play is set entirely in Fallaci's living room in Manhattan, where she is said to be suffering from cancer and where she is writing what she says will be her last book. The play opens in 2000, when she is visited by a fictional young journalist, portrayed by Marjan Neshat, who says she volunteered for the assignment because she has always been an ardent fan of Fallaci's work.
Broadway veteran Concetta Tomei is marvelous as the arrogant, forthright, chain-smoking Fallaci, telling much of her life story through the interview conceit set up by Wright. She was famous for sitting down with world leaders like Fidel Castro and the Ayatollah Khomeini and asking them probing, personal questions. She brags in the play about speaking to Khomeini in "the voice of the one woman he most feared and respected, his mother," asking him if he had to go pee-pee, and making him laugh as no one else was able to do.
Unfortunately, as Fallaci's foil, the 25-year-old journalist Maryam, Neshat can't quite hold her own. She appears confident and whip-smart in her own right, but Neshat always lags just a beat behind, and seems less comfortable and believable on stage, adding to the two-dimensional didacticism of Wright's script. Side by side with Tomei, her greenness shows.
Things come to a head in the second half of the play, when Maryam returns in 2003 to finish what [SPOILER ALERT] turns out to be Fallaci's obituary for the New York Times. At this point the Iraq war has begun, and the Muslim-born Maryam is insulted and disgusted by Fallaci's opportunism in having penned an anti-Muslim screed following 9/11 (titled The Rage and the Pride) that became a big best-seller in Italy and elsewhere. No longer in awe of her hero, Maryam puts Fallaci on the defensive, and the two debate the polemics of Islam, women's rights, and fundamentalism.
The play is briskly paced and comes to a dramatic flourish at its closing in the hands of director Oskar Eustis. But confined to one room, and basically just two scenes, this is a play mostly about words, and how to fit the bullet points of an exciting life into a tight 90 minutes. Wright says that Fallaci was always an idol of his, and the play seems like an attempt to redeem her, post-mortem, after the outrage sparked by her last book. She was a flawed human being, and maybe sort of a flawed thinker, but nevertheless wise about the workings of power and passionate about finding the truth.
We just wish that we could have learned about her in the context of an actual story, and not in this glorified obituary that's been shoe-horned into a two-woman play.
Fallaci plays through April 21 at Berkeley Rep. Get tickets here.
* This post has been corrected to show that the play was not previously produced off-Broadway.