New Arthur Laurents Play
Also see Bob's review of Wintertime
The artistic barrenness of this 90 minute play and its political agenda can best be conveyed by a detailed description. If your reaction to it differs from that of this reviewer, so be it.
The protagonists are a middle aged man and woman who meet in a downtown Manhattan cafe about a year or so prior to 9/11/01. The script follows their relationship until a year or so beyond that fateful day. The only other settings are the apartments of each of them.
The cafe is either adjacent to or part of a downtown hospital where the woman Leyla’s adult son lies in critical condition after being run down by a taxi. The man Beecher (Rachins) is a forever struggling filmmaker of very low budget documentaries. He did have a succes d’estime entitled Pro and Contra many years earlier, but his economic status is such that he has to use the cafe as an office. Beecher is attracted to Leyla from the get-go. Leyla becomes attracted to Beecher because of her admiration of P&C and its attack on American governmental policy.
The divorced Beecher initiates and completes a fictional film based on his relationship with Leyla over the course of the play. He’s a good guy with some terrible flaws which he comes to rue. You see, he allows things beyond the sweet and unconditional love which Leyla gives to him to influence his feelings toward her. He will eventually come to realize that her dissembling and lying about central facts of her employment, activities and beliefs should not concern him. However, for most of the play, despite his left leaning politics, he is at heart an arrogant American who cannot understand the righteous goodness of people (specifically the terrorists of Al Qaeda and Hezbollah) who oppose and kill Americans. At the end, he informs Leyla that he has fired his unpaid devoted assistant for being too thorough in following up on his request to get information about her. He is ready to change and may be able to save their relationship by moving with Leyla to Turkey.
Leyla is the sweetest, warmest, most loving and accepting woman ever to exist outside a movie fantasy. She gives herself over completely to loving and caring for Beecher, even if he is American and thus inherently flawed. She operates on a higher plain because she comes from a culture (which could only be either Turkish or Islamic) in which people accept each other for what they bring to personal relationships without concern for their beliefs and actions outside of the relationship. The fact that she is repeatedly dishonest with Beecher does not intrude on her goodness. Over the course of the play, bit by bit, we learn much, but not all, about her.
(Now while I will try not to, I may get a small detail wrong here or there. However, I will not distort Laurents thrust). Leyla’s husband, who was involved in anti-Western spying or terrorism was shot to death in a Cairo bazaar a few years earlier. Leyla works as a translator. At first, she encourages Beecher’s belief that she works for the United Nations. When Beecher discovers her deception, she falsely “admits” that she works for the “Middle East Trade League.” Ultimately, we learn that she works for a clandestine anti-American, terrorist or terrorist supporting organization. We are never told exactly which. As Beecher comes to learn, it should not matter to us because she is a good, warm hearted person. After all, she doesn’t advocate suicide bombing. In fact, Miss Sweetness and Light just melts Beecher when she tells him, “I don’t condemn suicide bombers. You don’t condemn bombing people for oil.” Beecher weakly and ashamedly responds, “It’s not just oil”.
There’s more. Leyla is convinced that her son Adem (she had told Beecher that his name was Adam to misdirect him) was pushed in front of the cab by those who opposed his activities (the CIA? Mossad?). Although her personal knowledge is augmented by statements made by ogres from the FBI, Leyla is certain that Adem, having been radicalized by, I believe, Hezbollah (my notes indicate that he worked for this terrorist organization) and possibly her husband, came to the United States to receive flight training, lived with the 9/11 terrorists, and was training in order to participate in the 9/11 atrocity. And would you believe that the ugly American FBI has the nerve to question her about this? She has information about Adem’s activities, but is disinclined to share it with the FBI. However, these ogres continue to hound her.
Insensitive FBI agents insulted her at first contact. Observing her manner and dress they assumed that she must be an American and not Turkish. Leyla also informs Beecher that she supported her husband’s activities and politics (although she also denies knowing what they were), and that she still supports the actions of Adem (“not because he is my son .... I understand what motivates a desperate people to perform barbaric acts.”) Events post 9/11 teach her that Americans are no good. Americans are “not open, direct and welcoming.” Their sin? “They feel threatened.” Thus Leyla can live among us no longer and will return home to Turkey. Now if Beecher would return there with her, it would be possible for a reformed Beecher (who would not care if she continued to support terrorism or became a terrorist there) to repair their relationship.
Laurents is less than honest here. Ostensibly, the play is a contemplative reflection on the sad fact that some people (Americans) allow political differences to destroy caring relationships. In reality, it is an attack on American society and government policy.
Even those who share his view will not fail to see that Laurents has not written an actual play. As noted, it is not possible to find a believable human being here, but Cigdem Onat adds to the disaster by playing Leyla as if she were portraying Snow White. Alan Rachins plays Beecher as written. He is a sweet and accommodating man who beats himself over the head for not being reasonable enough. Beecher may well be Laurents’ fantasy of himself. However, such a man would not have Beecher’s, let alone Laurents’, accomplishments.
The three settings are minimally represented by set designer James Youmans on a small revolve at stage center. Theoni Aldredge’s costumes are appropriate. Those for Ms. Onat are most attractive.
I could guess as to the specific references of the title Attacks on the Heart, but it is impossible to care. A more accurate title for this play would be Bilge Water. My dictionary defines bilge water as slang for “foolish, worthless or offensive talk or ideas; nonsense; rubbish”. Yes, BILGE WATER.
David Saint, George Street’s artistic director, is justifiably proud of the fact that Arthur Laurents, a venerated giant of the American theatre, has chosen the George Street Playhouse as the home for his efforts. Given his now longstanding relationship with Laurents, it is no surprise that Saint has chosen to produce and direct Laurents’ Attacks on the Heart. You do not have to see it.
Attacks on the Heart continues through November 9 at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick NJ 08901. Box Office: 732-246-7717; online: www.georgestplayhouse.org
Attacks on the Heart by Arthur Laurents; directed by David Saint. Cast: Cigdem Onat (Leyla); Alan Rachins (Beecher)