Thoughtful theater-goers who also take an interest in global politics are being well served by the theater in central New Jersey this fall. Following on the heels of William Mastrosimone’s "The Afghan Women" at Passage Theater, a searing dramatization of the crisis of violence in present-day Afghanistan, comes Arthur Laurents’ fine post-9/11 drama, "Attacks on the Heart." The eminent 86-year-old playwright’s latest work is having its world premiere at George Street Playhouse where performances continue through Sunday, November 9.
In the shock and turmoil of September 11, 2001, it seemed downright impertinent to ask our creative artists what they planned to do with their experience of the body blow to the national consciousness. Who could think about the performing arts when smoke and ash still filled the air? Yet artists are professionals too, and though some may have put their work aside for a day or a week or a month, most were eager to return to it. When I asked one New York artist in late September, 2001, how she could continue to make art at such a time, she told me that artmaking suddenly seemed more important than ever.
Now we are beginning to see the fruits of these heartfelt efforts. On the stages of George Street and Passage and beyond, we can hear our most chaotic thoughts given voice, given order, and placed before us for our scrutiny and understanding.
Like Mastrosimone, Laurents has produced a script that pokes and probes at unexamined, deep-seated prejudices and assumptions. And where "The Afghan Women" asks difficult questions about when and how violence must be met with violence, "Attacks of the Heart" brings us face to face with the reality of international Balkanization and the isolation of the U.S. superpower. After a decade of watching Internet communications and bargain airfares transform our world into a bona fide global village, in that single day, many of us thought most about staying home.
By choosing to set his "Afghan Women" in that faraway, decimated nation, Mastrosimone opens a window for us onto a foreign landscape, an exotic culture, and a different way of life. Laurents, on the other hand, sets his "Attacks on the Heart" on the familiar turf of multi-ethnic Manhattan. Using a love affair between adults from two different cultures as his vehicle, Laurents lures us into dialogue with friends and strangers, familiar and unfamiliar. The result is a one-act, 90-minute drama that remains upbeat, even as it challenges our values and opinions.
The play’s primary setting is a cafe in Manhattan where two 50-something adults find themselves at adjacent tables. He’s a brainy-looking American guy, sitting with a cup of coffee as he works on a laptop, the cafe table his makeshift office. She’s an elegant, urbane Middle Eastern woman, Leyla, brilliantly portrayed by Cigdem Onat, who sits with an unread book and an untouched glass of wine, seeming to wait for someone or something.
"Fantasies are my profession — I’m an independent filmmaker," Beecher, somewhat stiffly played by Alan Rachins, tells the woman. But when pressed to name one of his supposedly obscure films, a political film about Nicaragua and the Contras, he discovers that Leyla, this stranger — a foreigner — has not only seen his film, but found it so memorable she has long wished to meet its director. Why? Because as a viewer, she felt she recognized the driving political passion behind the work.
The couple’s typical cafe banter quickly grows into a romantic attraction. Right away we learn that Leyla is a passionate woman who, having seen the memorable film, feels she knows its auteur. And the film in question, Beecher’s "Pro and Contra," is a drama about Nicaragua and a Don Quixote-like character fighting for justice. We learn this is a film of passion and rage, and that its director is a man intolerant of injustice and government malfeasance.
Leyla, on the other hand, is a woman who measures out small drops of information like a diminutive cup of Turkish coffee. Gradually we learn she is a Turkish woman, widowed not long ago, and living in New York. Her husband has already died a violent death, and, at the play’s opening, her adult son, Adem, lies gravely injured in a nearby hospital.
Both Beecher, who confesses he is "better at inventing life than living it," and Leyla feel that they have come together at "the right moment." Yet just a month into this nascent affair comes September 11. On that day, all the rules are changed — or perhaps New York’s unspoken rules have suddenly become painfully explicit.
Under the careful direction of David Saint, we hang on this couple’s every word. In a role tailored for her by the playwright, Turkish-American actor Onat delivers a tour de force performance. Every emotion across the spectrum materializes before our eyes. In one scene, while Beecher prattles on with a story about his day, we can only watch the silent Onat, her face revealing more than we can imagine about her own harrowing day.
The production is spare, the set a simple revolving stage. The scenes in Leyla’s apartment, with its large floor pillows, and a decorative polished brass disk on the wall, also speak of cultural difference. "We come from such different worlds," she tells her lover, as the two struggle to find common ground.
Some of the play’s questions are small but vivid — like Beecher’s sudden demand: "Where did they get those little American flags? It’s like everyone in the Village woke up with one the morning after 9/11." Other questions are larger and longstanding, questions the audience must carry home and turn over in thought and conversation.
The couple’s exchange that hit me most powerfully, was at an early point in the courtship when Leyla asks that her apartment should be a sanctuary against taking sides — "No sides in this room," she requests. But Beecher misinterprets and jumps to the conclusion that she may be on one side and he on the other. "You mean there are only two sides?" she exclaims in frustration. "Oh to be an American!"
"I’ve been swimming in lies," admits Leyla, after her second questioning by the FBI. But in place of his characteristic righteous indignation, suddenly the FBI’s question becomes Beecher’s questions too.
"God bless America!" Leyla exclaims, challenging Beecher to tell her, "Which of us comes from a secular country?"
"I’m going home," says Leyla, finally, as she prepares to return to Turkey. For most of her adult life, she tells us, she believed "the world was home." Now begins a time of retreat, for her and perhaps for us, too. Preparing to breech the divide is Beecher. Maybe he’ll travel to Turkey; maybe there’s a film to be made there. Maybe — despite our myriad human differences — some of us will keep reaching out.
Attacks on the Heart, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $28 to $52. Through Sunday, November 9.