Pandering is nothing new in the theater. In fact, “Give 'em what they want” is one of the unofficial mottoes of showbiz. That's all very well when expressed in an excess of dancing girls or chorus boys, but when it comes to political theater, or theater of ideas, one must tread more carefully.
“Betrayed” means well, but comes up short on a vital matter
George Packer's “Betrayed” grapples with a critical issue facing America today, but ultimately it's a knock-down that avoids the fight altogether. Intellectual laziness devolves into posturing and the result is polemical rather than legitimately theatrical. It's also driven by the assumption that the generally more liberal theater audience will agree without question with the biases of the playwright. This may be solid marketing, but it makes pallid, if distractingly strident theater, lacking dramatic tension; rather than being thought-provoking it takes on the unmistakable air of focus-grouped stump speeches, undercuting its moral authority.
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“Betrayed” draws on interviews Packer did in Iraq and his fine article in the March 2007 New Yorker. It chronicles the fates of Iraqis working with Americans in Baghdad's infamous Green Zone and the dehumanizing effects of being caught up in a bureaucracy inimical to their well-being. The characters are composites, but Packer takes the elements that serve his thesis — in senselessly destroying Iraq, Americans are also destroying individuals and lives — and gives us no balance.
It's not that he's wrong – not by a long shot. It's just that his own article and books including “Imperial Life in the Emerald City” go much further in making his case. He ignores the interior life of anyone who doesn't serve his purpose. With the exception of one American, Bill Prescott, who conveniently has a breakdown from the stress, the invaders are all portrayed as one-dimensional puppets.
The Bush administration has monumentally botched this war of choice, but by avoiding the human drama and going for easy emotional responses, Packer, however right-headed he may be, undermines the theatrical value of his tale.
Waleed F. Zuaiter and Sevan Greene do fine jobs as the two main Iraqis, Adnan and Laith, and Mike Doyle is excellent as Prescott. Yet it is their talent and personalities that carry the play – not the thematic argument unfolding on stage.
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