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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 3, 2003

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

From Braniacks to Spooks

In the 1940s, carefully selected students at Yale

University

were recruited by their professors to form the OSS (Office of

Strategic

Services), the precursor of the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency).

Many of us never knew exactly how and why those social science

intellectuals

from academe, while largely performing in a research branch, suddenly

became privy to international secrets. But they effectively changed

the social conscience of their school for almost 20 years.

One person who does know is author, journalist, dramatist, and

professor

Charles Evered, who deals with that subject in his play

"Wilderness

of Mirrors." The show, which begins previews at George Street

Playhouse on Tuesday, September 9, has its world premiere on Friday,

September 12. I spoke with Evered at the Playhouse about his play

in which he incorporates intrigue, deception — and whatever else

he imagines it took to beguile the organization’s first operatives.

"The world of spying is a wilderness of mirrors," James Jesus

Angleton, former chief of counter intelligence CIA, once said. His

expression came from T.S. Eliot’s poem "Gerontion": "In

a wilderness of mirrors. What will the spider do?"

Evered acknowledges candidly that the CIA did, indeed, effectively

change the heretofore progressively liberal dynamics of academe.

"Right now there is a love-hate relationship with the CIA,"

says the 38-year-old Evered. He recalls how, when he was in academe,

people were suspicious of you if you involved with any part of the

armed forces. "I was interested in writing about that and the

arc of how that happened," he says, adding that he will trace

the agency back to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"The government realized it needed to have an official and

legitimate

arm of intelligence. FDR directed army General Bill Donovan to set

up the OSS at the best place to get spies. Discounting the big brawny

guys and the athletes, the OSS was after the `braniacks’ —

students

who had a wide general knowledge that included history, geography,

and languages. To tap that resource they went to the professors at

Yale."

The play takes place between 1942, the "gung-ho" beginnings

of the OSS, and 1968, the lowest ebb in terms of our regard for its

offshoot, the CIA. In it, Robert Conlan, a professor at Yale

University,

like many of his recruiting colleagues, covertly selects the brightest

and the best students to take on assignments from the OSS. The ruse

in the play, he explains, is how the students are subtly trained to

be spies in what was called the "library project." Issues

of duty and the personal cost of service to country surface, as Conlan

questions the romantic relationship between a brilliant young recruit

and a member of his own family.

Evered says he tried to deal with our nation’s "hot and cold"

relationship with the CIA in the play from an unbiased perspective.

"I believe in both sides and see the necessity for an intelligence

agency. He does believe, however, that it overreached itself and went

into areas it shouldn’t have. I know there are people on the left

who say it is just an evil and get rid of it. But I believe the CIA

is finding a balance between need and overreaching as opposed to the

wholesale domestic spying that took place during the late 1950s and

1960s."

Loosely based on events described in the 1987 book

"Cloak

and Gown," by Yale history professor Robin W. Winks,

"Wilderness

of Mirrors" offers more than Evered’s glimpse into the secret

world of spies and academe. He says he is both critical and able to

cast some light on the young people 60 years ago who were called upon

to do things no one would consider doing today.

The character of Robert, the professor in the play, is based on Norman

Holmes Pearson. The character of James is based on James Jesus

Angleton,

the chief of counter intelligence with the CIA. There are two separate

chapters in the book that deal with them. Evidently Angleton had

become

so paranoid after 50 years on the job that he accused John F. Kennedy

of being a mole. And Pearson, "a brilliant scholar," Evered

tells me, "went on to found the American Studies program at

Yale."

Evered says that he veered just enough in the story line so the

families

won’t be upset.

Evered is a graduate of both Rutgers, where he received a bachelor’s

degree in anthropology, Class of ’87, and Yale University, where he

earned a master’s degree in playwriting in 1991. As a former officer

in the United States Navy (Res) and a graduate of the United States

Naval Aviation Schools Command, Pensacola, Florida and the United

States Navy Officer Leadership Course, he has studied numerous other

subjects.

After I rattle off the subject list from his resume: Small Arms Use,

Military law, Counter-Terrorism, Naval Administration, United States

Sea Power, Laws of Armed Conflict, Geneva Convention, Rules of

Engagement

and the Code of Military Conduct, we laugh heartily at my suggestion

that he has a dramatist’s minefield there. With his wholesome good

looks, the tall, dirty blonde Evered could easily be used for the

"Join the Navy and See the World" posters. He swears that

"I have never used a gun in rehearsal."

Serving with the Naval Office of Information at the onset of the War

on Terror, his assignment to help document the devastation on the

site of the former World Trade Center was only a couple of days after

the attack — an experience that led directly to his writing some

key scenes in "Wilderness of Mirrors." Evered was a fellow

at Whitman College in Washington State on 9/11 when he was told to

report to his unit based in Manhattan. He had joined the naval unit

there on the request of his wife who, thinking of his safety, said

"okay, you’re in the Navy but I don’t want you in harm’s way.

What could ever happen in New York City?"

"Flames were still coming up out of the rubble. I was standing

on a girder. It felt like I was on a movie set for Dante’s

`Inferno,’"

he says. "I had this sudden realization that this huge catastrophe

was all thought up on a couch or a coffee shop or at a meeting in

Munich or Vienna. It was the first time that I felt the palpable

feeling

of evil that engineered this horrible act. I thought about the nature

of evil and whether you can counter it."

There are scenes in the play when Robert, the recruiter is trying

to impress upon James, that despite wanting the world to be fine and

safe place, there are people out there trying to kill us. "And

what can we do about it?" We concur that the world has become

a very small place since 9/11.

Presently an assistant professor at Emerson College in Boston, where

he teaches a writing workshop, Evered earned his master’s degree at

Yale. His articles about politics, culture and the war on terror have

been published in the Times of London and U.S. Navy Publications among

other periodicals. He has taught at Carnegie Mellon University and

Rider University in Lawrenceville.

While we were discussing the ways in which the recruiters were able

to beguile the students into the OSS, I asked Evered if he thought

writing dramatic literature was one of the best ways that he knew

to affect a change in the political conscience of the audience.

"For

me," he says, "writing is the only way I know to affect change

although going into the military was the best way for me to serve

something more than my own self interests." He allows that he

briefly considered going into politics but decided against it because

"they all seem to look like they owe somebody something. What

I love about writing is that I don’t have to be careful what I

say."

Asked about whether he thought the CIA has proven to

be as corrupt and duplicitous as the regimes it supports, Evered

answers:

"I don’t think so. In the past they have done things that are

wrong. On the other hand, the CIA does a lot of good to keep us safer.

I take the bad with the good. Unfortunately the CIA can’t tout its

successes but its failures are out there for everyone to see."

As a writer, Evered says he has to see both sides and "ruffle

feathers." As a playwright, he admits that he had to write

screenplays

(for films he won’t mention) to pay back college loans. The first

play in a trilogy about spies, "Wilderness of Mirrors," will

be followed by "Clouds Hill," in which two professors at a

Midwestern college learn that a Muslim chemistry student may be

developing

weapons of mass destruction. It will be produced by the Manhattan

Theater Club next season.

While Evered, whose main body of dramatic literature consists of

one-act

plays that have received productions at major regional theaters

throughout

the country, had his only other full-length play "The Size of

the World," produced by the Circle Repertory Theater in 1996.

But it is "Adopt A Sailor," a 10-minute play that premiered

at New York’s Town Hall as part of the "Brave New World" event

on the first anniversary of 9/11, that resonated with notable

topicality.

The cast at Town Hall included Liev Schreiber, Amy Irving, Sam

Waterston,

Bebe Neuwirth, and Eli Wallach. "Wilderness of Mirrors" opens

the week of the second anniversary.

Self-described as the once "angry young man from Rutherford, New

Jersey," Evered mentions Trenton’s William Mastrosimone (whose

play "Afghan Women" opens at the Passage Theater in October)

among the contemporary playwright he particularly admires.

Evered is married to the former Wendy Rolfe, an actress, of Portland,

Oregon. They have two children, Margaret and John O’Hara, ages four

and two, respectively. The Evereds are planning to move back to

Rutherford

where Evered will undoubtedly continue to write about subjects that

find favor and dramatic worth in his unique and extremely committed

social and political conscience.

With the opening of "Wilderness of Mirrors," the George Street

Playhouse is celebrating its 30th anniversary season. The cast

features

Michael Countryman, in the role of Robert Conlan, the Yale academician

who covertly recruited students for the nascent government agency;

Leslie Lyles portrays his wife Susan; Welker White plays Christina,

Conlan’s niece who falls in love with student-turned spy; and Alex

Draper as student James Singleton. Rounding out the cast is Monica

West, Yuval Bolm, and Martin Friedrichs. Scenic design is by James

Youmans, with costumes by David Murin, and lighting by David Lander.

— Simon Saltzman

Wilderness of Mirrors , George Street Playhouse,

9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. The world premiere

of Charles Evered’s play about the birth of the CIA, directed by David

Saint. Previews begin Tuesday, September 9, for the play that runs

to October 5. $28 to $52.


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