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Interview with Omar Metwally
The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East

By Beth Herstein


Omar Metwally
The Fever Chart: Three Visions of The Middle East

This year marks the inaugural season of The Public Lab, a collaborative effort between the Public Theater and LAByrinth Theater Company. Starting in February, the Public has presented a series of staged but bare bones productions at its Shiva Theater. Each run lasts just two-and-a-half weeks and tickets are just $10 each. In this era, in which top Broadway ticket prices have hit $110, this is a huge bargain, all the more so because of the quality of the work. Already, the Lab has presented a musical by The Civilians and a play by Adrienne Kennedy and Adam P. Kennedy, and there are other promising productions on the horizon.

Currently running is The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East, by 1999 MacArthur Fellow Naomi Wallace. As the title suggests, the show is a triptych of one acts set in the Middle East. Though distinct stories, the three acts are thematically linked. Cumulatively, they probe beneath the surface and the right-or-wrong of the conflicts, looking at the human costs of the wars, and at the humanity of their many victims.

Director Jo Bonney helms the show, which features, among others, rising star Omar Metwally. Since receiving his masters in acting from San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater in 1997, Metwally has amassed impressive acting credits - and a string of strong reviews - in theater, film and television. Regionally, he has appeared at Trinity Repertory Company, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and Long Wharf Theatre, among others. For his Broadway debut in 2004's Sixteen Wounded, he received a Tony nomination. His feature film debut was Steven Spielberg's Munich, with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, in 2005. He has two films, Amsterdam and City of Your Final Destination, due for release this year.

Despite his steady stream of film and TV work, Metwally has not forgotten his theater roots, and he is thrilled to be a part of Naomi Wallace's show, which he also workshopped a few years back at the Sundance Lab. Recently, Omar took some time off from his busy rehearsal schedule for a telephone interview about the production.

Beth Herstein:  You're a native New Yorker, but you moved to California when you were pretty young.

Omar Metwally:  My family moved to Southern California when I was three. I grew up in Orange County.

BH:  In undergraduate school, you didn't major in acting. How did you get your start?

OM:  I acted a lot in high school, and even before that. I was always doing plays in school. But I wasn't planning on being an actor. At 18, 19, I just didn't know you could become a professional actor. So, when I got to university, I thought it was time to get serious. I went to UC Berkeley and studied history. I thought maybe I'd go to law school or go into teaching. But my little sister convinced me in my last semester at Berkeley to take an acting class. And it all came flooding back to me, how much I enjoyed it. So, I went straight from there into American Conservatory Theater, into the graduate program.

BH:  You've done a lot of theater since then, for some major companies throughout the country. I notice you've worked with Tony Kushner a number of times, starting early in your professional acting career.

OM:  That's been one of the most exciting things for me, in my work thus far. I've had the chance to work with him three times. I did two productions of Homebody/Kabul, one at Trinity Rep [in 2001] and one at Steppenwolf [in 2003], both of which he was involved in, still writing and working on the play. I love that play, and he's such a singular writer. To get the chance to work with him more than once on the same play was really interesting.

And, then, of course, [I worked with him] on Munich. He was on set while we were shooting that. It was fun to see him again in a different context. It was my first film, really, after having done a lot of theater. I grew up watching ET and Raiders of the Lost Ark, so to suddenly be on set with Spielberg was obviously very exciting. Also, because Tony had done the screenplay, I knew that it was going to be something very interesting, and that the subject matter was one that he would handle with courage and care. It was a wonderful experience.

BH:  You've been asked a lot about the political nature of the works you've done. In researching, it struck me that as much as anything else, you're looking for the courage and care you just talked about.

OM:  Absolutely. I think that's always the most important thing to me. I am interested in working on projects that are relevant and current. I think that's important. But not just for its own sake. You're always trying to work with directors and writers who are trying to explore the complexity and the paradoxes of some of these issues. That just makes for more interesting theater and film.

BH:  I want to ask you about Sixteen Wounded. You moved to Broadway with the show, and it brought you a lot of attention. You were named one of eight performers to watch in a New York Times article, and you received a 2004 Tony nomination as well. What was all that like for you?

OM:  That was definitely a ride. It was developed at the Cherry Lane Theater, but I started with it at the Long Wharf [in 2003]. There was some talk that there was interest from Broadway producers. But, I was just focused on that production and trying to do the best that I could, and whatever happens, happens. It wasn't until about a year later that we started rehearsals for the Broadway production. So there was a long period of will it or won't it, and will I or won't I.

There were a lot of ups and downs because the show closed quickly, which was disappointing. Yet there were a lot of positive developments for me, personally, like the Tony nomination. So, there were highs and lows. In a way, it encapsulated the ups and downs of being an actor.

BH:  What was it like working with that team - Judd Hirsch, Martha Plimpton, Jan Maxwell, Garry Hynes?

OM:  I had a great time with them. Particularly with Garry. She's a ball to work with. She's a great director and a lot of fun. And the actors were great as well.

BH:  In some interviews you've talked about the dangers of being typecast. How do you try to diversify your parts?

OM:  It sounds kind of obvious, but I try to look for different kind of roles, and I try not to repeat myself. One way to avoid being typecast is to avoid stereotypical roles. So, even though I may play a lot of parts of certain ethnicities, as long as they are fully human and interesting characters, then I think the danger of being typecast is lessened, because people will see in those roles your potential to move in other directions as well. If you start to play into the stereotypes - apart from it being boring and kind of destructive, it really limits other perceptions of what you can do as an actor.

BH:  Being able to play certain ethnicities, given the climate of our times, you have the opportunity to jump into some really relevant plays and movies.

OM:  Absolutely. It does. And, having my father being from the Middle East and my being born here, it puts me in a unique position. I'm interested in work that promotes dialogue, that promotes communication. I don't really mind playing roles of a certain kind, if that's what's happening as a result.

BH:  What drew you to the Public Lab and this current production?

OM:  The play. I think Naomi's writing is really first rate, and very special. I had done a reading of this piece some time ago, and that's when I first encountered it and fell in love with it. So, when this opportunity came around, I immediately said yes.

BH:  As you've been involved with it for so long, how much have you seen The Fever Chart evolve, and how much are you able to have an impact into that evolution and the development of your character?

OM:  It's interesting. The Fever Chart is different from other plays because it's really three plays. The three plays are related thematically and in other ways, and they work together really well. But, they are distinct. I am involved in one of them, a monologue. It's called "The Retreating World." It really hasn't changed much at all since the reading because Naomi was really clear about what she wanted to say and how she wanted to say it. My input has been more in the telling of the story, in the nuance of performing it. Sometimes, when you're working on a new play, the actors contribute a lot to the way the play grows and changes. But in this case it was so tight already that it hasn't changed much at all.

BH:  Can you describe the show a little bit?

OM:  I think of it as a collection of ghost stories. They kind of take place in this grey area between life and death, or around life and death. The characters in all three pieces are trying to come to terms with a once familiar home or a landscape that has become unrecognizable. So in that sense the plays are also about memory. Also, they all deal with very charged political subjects - Palestine, Israel and Iraq. Naomi's talent is such that she never forgets that she's writing about specific and unique individual lives. So the play never feels didactic or polemical. You're watching lives. She also writes with a great deal of humor, which I also think is important.

BH:  What are the challenges of doing a monologue on the stage?

OM:  This is the first time I've taken on a monologue of this size. I almost want to say, I'll tell you what the challenges are after the first week of performances. I'm about to find out.

Actually, it excites me, the idea of being alone with the audience and speaking to them for an extended period of time. It seems like it will become very clear how the show is going. I expect I'll have immediate feedback. That something that's a little nerve-inducing but also exciting.

BH:  As you mentioned, you're working on one segment of a three-part show. How do you work on the flow, and what is your relationship with the other actors?

OM:  It's actually been really fascinating to watch the other pieces rehearse. There are so many resonances among the three pieces. In each, there are echoes of the other two. So, by watching the other actors rehearse their plays and seeing those echoes, I'm learning more about what I'm doing. That's been a nice aspect of this. Also, the other actors are great. It's always nice to watch good actors.

BH:  You talked about promoting conversation and provoking thought in the audience. What kind of discussion occurs among you all in the course of working on this show?

OM:  When we're working on the plays, the discussions are really about the relationships among the characters. The moment to moment life we're trying to create. Naomi's play is a work of art, so it's beyond a specific political agenda. The best way that we can get the audience to see or think about these issues from different perspectives is to fully mine the humanity of the characters and their relationships onstage. That's the exciting work for actors and directors. Not to go out and say, "We're trying to say this!" But, to dig deeper and deeper, and leave the audience to room to think and room to feel.


Photo: Joan Marcus



Naomi Wallace's The Fever Chart: Three Visions of The Middle East, directed by Jo Bonney, running through Sunday, May 11 at the Public Theatre, 425 Lafayette Street. For tickets and additional information, visit www.publictheater.org/.


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