THE ALLY Tackles The Conflict — Review


Ben Rosenfield and Josh Radnor | Photo: Joan Marcus

Juan A. Ramirez
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February 27, 2024 10:00 PM

It’s tough to dramatize an ongoing debate – perhaps the debate – without having to choose between great action and nuanced understanding. The Ally, Itamar Moses’ new play about a college professor caught in the crosshairs of a campus Israel-Palestine debate, finds a strong middle ground, thanks in part to a compelling lead performance from Josh Radnor. Thoughtfully directed by Lila Neugebauer at the Public’s tribunal-like Anspacher theatre, this premiere production keeps things moving while granting its numerous viewpoints their due.

At the receiving end of all those ideologies is Asaf (Radnor), a progressive, Jewish-born atheist who teaches writing at a prestigious university. Just as his Korean-American wife, Gwen (Joy Osmanski) – the uncomfortably tokenized “community outreach” face of the school’s gentrification plan – suggests padding his featherlight workload with a hobby, he learns that a relative of one of his Black students (Elijah Jones) was recently murdered by police. This leads him to Nakia (Cherise Boothe), a community organizer and (wouldn’t you know it?) his college ex, who has recruited the pupil to collect signatures for a proposed police reform.

Madeline Weinstein, Michael Khalid Karadsheh, and Elijah Jones | Photo: Joan Marcus

The hip, affable Asaf agrees beat-by-beat with the lengthy call for liberation, save for two lines demanding the end of apartheid and genocide in Israel. Is he defensive of the country, Gwen asks? “No, I’m just defensive of...internally consistent logic.” Nakia, whose commanding presence brings out Asaf’s formerly front-line self, undoes his mental gymnastics and gets his signature, which he hopes will go unnoticed in a sea of names. Soon enough, two students – the Palestinian-American Farid (Michael Khalid Karadsheh), and former Jewish Student Union member Rachel (Madeline Weinstein) – knock on his door, hoping he’ll sponsor their new club, which seeks to host a anti-Zionist Jewish speaker.

Under Neugebauer’s fluid direction, the play unfolds as an ongoing conversation, pitting Asaf closer against his warring beliefs and identities with minimal distinction between scenes. Moses provides each character with passionate moments (sharply embodied by the excellent cast), though the monologuing begins to halt the storytelling. But the play’s most plot-stunting speechifying is also some of its most electric, as is the case with a well-spoken PhD student of Jewish History (Ben Rosenfield) and, later, Farid’s haunting cry for recognition at his life of “moving through the world as the threat of violence incarnate.” And even its wonkier narrative elements, like the resurfacing of Asaf and Nakia’s old relationship issues, and Gwen’s left-field jealousy of it, can be excused as necessary for the story to maintain steam.

Josh Radnor | Photo: Joan Marcus

In that respect, much credit must be given to Radnor, the former How I Met Your Mother star who is given the unenviable task of portraying a passive cipher. An avatar of relatable Millennial indecisiveness, he channels that lost-boy likability into an impressively effective performance. Asaf wants to ponder ad nauseam, hiding behind liberal arts notions of ‘creating space’ for debate without ever committing to action.

Cuttingly, Farid calls him and his ilk “the sympathetic ear.” Moses similarly beckons an audience which, despite the city and the Public’s ostensible reputation for open-mindedness, is still fairly monolithic in its receptive attitudes. What he, and this production, have managed to do in the current political climate is almost heroic in its thematic resoluteness. It doesn’t reach conclusions, but suggests that the boldest enemy an ally-to-all has lives within. 

The Ally is in performance through March 24, 2024 at the Public Theater on Lafayette Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.

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