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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Fajer Al-Kaisi and Demosthenes Chrysan.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

In their long-running documentary-theatre piece, The Exonerated, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen strove to show that though six wrongly accused people were rescued from death row, the physical and invisible scars they incurred would not so easily heal. In their latest venture, Aftermath, at New York Theatre Workshop, Blank and Jensen again examine the infliction of untold (and perhaps unnecessary) pain on a group of innocents who were robbed of their own freedom, if in a different way. They're not from the United States, but they don't have to be - Americans can mistreat and maim others at least as easily as they can themselves.

No, this is not exactly a shocking revelation. Neither is Aftermath. This study of Iraqi refugees, who've fled to Jordan to escape the destruction and pillaging of their homeland in the wake of the United States deposing Saddam Hussein in 2003, pulls so few punches that one is surprised it didn't appear during the Bush administration. This may be a brutal and unforgiving probe of displaced souls desperately searching for remnants of themselves away from their homes, but its overall imbalance makes it of minimal use as either a historical or dramatic representation of this difficult subject.

Blank and Jensen conducted nearly 40 interviews with the refugees during 2008, which they've distilled into a sextet of stories that eventually all start sounding pretty similar. Husband-and-wife cooks (Omar Koury and Rasha Zamamiri), a pharmacist (Laith Nakli), a Christian wife and mother (Leila Buck), a dermatologist (Amir Arison), a theatre director and his artist wife (Daoud Heidami and Maha Chehlaoui), an imam (Demosthenes Chrysan), and the translator (Fajer Al-Kaisi) who ties them all together share a history of difficult existences that became unbearable - if not outright impossible - once Baghdad fell to American forces.

Whether their individual tragedies are limited to losing work on a significant theatre project, being forced to operate (literally) beyond one's skill, training, and preference, or losing one's family and beauty to a bombing, there is an undeniable pull to these recollections. But they're so impeccably chosen, so perfectly interlocking to further the unveiling of America's myopic destructiveness, that they're rather less believable than the simply told reminiscences of The Exonerated. They're more consistently acted, by a company of actors whose Middle-Eastern heritage lends an immediate gravitas to their characters' plaints, but it's not enough to prevent the whole show from seeming more like theatre than documentary.

There's something uncomfortably pat about the imam's having gone to Abu Ghraib, regardless of the desert-dry outrage Chrysan so effectively and subtly spews. The dermatologist's constant quips and frontline insights are too calculated in their positioning within the narrative and their cadence to register as natural wit (though Arison delivers with adequate amounts of showman's grease). And the behavior of the borderline-omniscient translator, whose language play is punctuated with jokes that attempt to leaven and humanize the prevailing misery, identifies him not just as the only composite character in the piece, but the one most openly tasked with conveying to us the laser-focused message at hand.

Blank and Jensen's choice to relate the unremitting agony and horrors both expansive and minuscule is a valid one. But the almost complete absence of opposing, or even moderately contrasting, viewpoints diminishes the evening's impact well before its 85-minute running time expires. Of the conflict in Iraq, Jensen said in a recent interview, "I marched against the war from the start." You can't help but sense during the play that he and Blank still are, preaching to the converted and burnishing to a blinding gleam ideas they don't feel it necessary to prove or even argue by traditional methods. That doesn't automatically make riveting, resonant theatre.

Not that Blank, who also directs with a darkly minimalist memory-theatre flair, and Jensen are obliged to be even-handed. But doing so might grant them even more power to drive their message home in a vehicle that resembles something other than a rant. Heather Raffo's 2004 one-woman Off-Broadway hit, Nine Parts of Desire, was written and performed conveniently closer to the flashpoint of the America-Iraq struggle, but also presented a more complex, densely layered collage of who was really affected. Raffo's parade of Iraqi women ruminated on Hussein, the United States, and everything in between in ways that could not be predicted, let alone categorized within a single box.

That play exposed you to a breadth and depth of opinions that Aftermath does not, and communicated even more strongly the idea of a culture and a centuries-old city under siege from inexplicable forces. Raffo proved that sometimes the best way to vivisect a person or subject is to be subtle. In elucidating so much about everything that went wrong when the U.S. entered Iraq, Blank and Jensen convey little recognition of the world in which good and evil, friend and enemy, and slave-keeper and liberator are difficult to distinguish, a world in which the war's true, ambiguous aftermath is still constantly being waged at home and abroad.

Through October 4
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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