The Citiblog

Review: The Ally Provides No Winning Argument
February 27, 2024, 11:50.24 pm ET


Photo: Joan Marcus

By Brian Scott Lipton

Those of us who lived through the early 1970s probably have the Certs jingle “it’s two two two mints in one” permanently stuck in our head. In any case, it came to my mind during a brief break in Itamar Moses’ incredibly intelligent if ridiculously overstuffed “The Ally,” now being presented at the Public Theater under the savvy direction of Lila Neugebauer, which is eight or nine plays in one.

Watching – or more accurately listening to -- this multi-faceted work, whose hot-button topics include antisemitism, anti-Zionism, anti-Palestinianism, gentrification, racism, free speech and the challenges of a long marriage – is much like riding an old-fashioned roller coaster: sometimes exhilarating, often bumpy, and even occasionally prone to make you vomit. And like with many an amusement park ride, you might easily rush to buy a return ticket; although here, it’s less about taking a second thrill ride and more to see how many of the play’s endless arguments – personal and political – that you can somehow digest.

Caught up in – and espousing – many of these diatribes is Asaf Sternheim (a sympathetic, self-deprecating Josh Radnor), a 40-something Jewish playwright who has moved from New York to an unnamed college town to support his Korean-born wife Gwen (a fine Joy Osmanskas), who has been given an administrative position that essentially consists of helping the university take over and gentrify nearby land for its own purposes.

Asaf, who has been given an adjunct position teaching one writing class, is a bit lost in his new surroundings, so he jumps perhaps a little too quickly at two opportunities to get more involved in campus life. The first, which he initially sees as insignificant, is to sign a petition seeking justice for the cousin of his former student Baron (Elijah Jones) – mistakenly killed by local police who suspected him of car theft -- and, somewhat coincidentally, structured by African American community activist Nakia Clarke (an excellent Cherise Boothe), Asaf’s ex-girlfriend from his college days.

On further reading, Asaf is troubled that the petition also slams Israel for its “genocidal” policies towards the Palestinians and calls for American sanctions against Israel. Still, he doesn’t withdraw his support. Asaf, who was raised in the U.S. but whose parents were born in Israel, makes repeatedly clear that he has no issue with criticizing some of Israel’s actions while still believing the Jewish state must exist. It is what he terms the “reasonable position” of all American Jews.

However, his signature does not go unnoticed – and despite his misgivings, he too easily signs off to be the faculty advisor for a newly formed student alliance. It is to be headed by the incredibly annoying Rachel Klein (a well-cast Madeline Weinstein), a perky 20-something who claims to know everything about global politics but is likely just parroting other people’s propaganda, and the seemingly quiet Palestinian-born Farid (the superb Michael Karadsheh).

The show’s first centerpiece, which ends its first act, is a sudden confrontation by an impassioned Jewish Ph.D student named Reuven (a masterful Ben Rosenfield). Loudly, he insists that the new group Asaf oversees disinvite an internationally known academic named Isaac Roth, who argues that Israel has essentially staged most of its wars to gain more land. Reuven further argues that while he isn’t denying Roth the freedom to speak somewhere, he is unequivocal in his belief that Roth cannot do so under the auspices of a group partially run by and overseen by other Jews.

The show’s second centerpiece, frankly more upsetting than the first, is Farid’s pent-up eruption against Asaf (and, essentially, all Israelis and all Jews), which is as remarkable piece of playwriting and acting that you will likely see this year.

To my taste, both scenes go on a bit too long (both for comfort and patience) and practically require the audience to have graduate degrees in both rhetoric and international affairs to keep up with all the back-and-forth arguments. Moreover, the fact that Asaf also frequently gives as good as he gets seems like he may also have a graduate degree or two that hasn’t been revealed.

Yet. for all the issues and viewpoints Moses brings up, the salient takeaway of “The Ally” is that no one really has the so-called “winning argument” and that we owe it to both ourselves and others to listen to -- with open ears if not open arms -- political points of views that differ from own. Then and only then can we do what we believe is truly right.

That, dear reader, is a task much easier said than done – or dramatized in one 2-plus-hours play.

See Details/Tickets