BWW Reviews: Arena Stage's World Premiere of CAMP DAVID Captivates, Shows Considerable Potential
Like many who come to Washington, DC as twenty-somethings, I was one of those enamored by the thought of one day working within the highest echelons of the US foreign policy community - supporting peace negotiations, working at a US Embassy overseas, whatever. An international relations-focused graduate school education, a few internship/career development stints at the State Department, and years of reading books about pivotal moments in world history for, you know, fun - well, I am probably the best or worst audience member (and in this case, 'reviewer') for a play like Lawrence Wright's Camp David.
Making its anticipated world premiere at Arena Stage, the play does well to likely satisfy viewers - like me - who have the intellectual curiosity about the famed 1978 peace talks between US President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and their (in this production unseen) respective delegations and the resultant Camp David Accords. The incredible story of how the talks happened is certainly ripe for theatricalization. Yet, as astutely directed by Molly Smith (Artistic Director of Arena Stage), the production also provides an opportunity for four solid actors to capture the players and the essence of what happened during that crucial September not far from Washington, DC in an intimate setting and in a way that doesn't require a PhD level understanding of Middle East relations. The polished production - as well as the script itself - is bursting with potential and achieves the balance of being educational while entertaining.
It must have been something of a task for Mr. Wright to leverage the incredible wealth of records and other information/analyses about the 1978 Camp David talks and use it as a basis for presenting a cohesive, focused story that was less of an academic lecture and more of a theatrical production for niche audiences and mass consumption. Still, with President Carter and his wife Rosalynn in attendance on opening night (along with, incidentally, Mrs. Sadat), as well as others that were involved in the event or have substantial knowledge of it, there is little room for error both in terms of the facts presented and the tone of the play. The prospect that Middle East foreign policy wonks would attend the show en masse throughout its run would also suggest that any potential fear on his part of not focusing the story in the right way or omitting a crucial detail would have been well-founded.
Personally, I think Wright does an admirable job in capturing the challenges all encountered in coming up with the two agreed frameworks that September - one of which led to the still relevant 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty - and many of the contentious land/security-related issues that were focal points of the spirited arguments. I appreciated that he highlights some of the very crucial and well-known issues like the status of West Bank/Gaza and the rights of the Palestinian people. Yet, he also features other issues that are still crucial to understanding the context for Israeli-Egyptian relations, but might be better known to specialists like the varying perspectives on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons - an issue of some importance still today. Nice touch. Yet, he also does well to capture the common ground between the key players and bring out the humanity of all involved - not just as heads/chiefs of state, but people with common interests despite differences. Sadat and Begin's common experience in prison, for example (where they both learned English), and all of their relationships with family are weaved nicely into the script.
As a playwright, Mr. Wright's job is to tell a story - and he does that.
The many well-researched details on display - in addition to wonderfully engaging moments of human interaction - lead to a theatergoing experience that is naturally quite intellectually satisfying, but most definitely not tedious, tiresome or dry or evidence of a playwright trying too hard to come off as an expert. The segment in which all visit Gettysburg as a 'getaway' from the tense environment in Maryland is a particularly good example of how Wright balances a solid understanding of the subject matter, the common human experiences of all involved, and a knack for creating a theatrical moment (it won't be spoiled here).
As depicted by the actors, the colorful personalities of all involved come to the forefront in the story and make abundantly clear how much the personalities had an impact on the ways in which Carter, Sadat, and Begin interacted with one another during those 13 days.
The affable, but ambitious Jimmy Carter is well-embodied by Richard Thomas. On opening night, Thomas proved best adept at dealing with the more lighthearted and comedic elements of the script, but didn't quite possess the gravitas necessary to embody a well-informed leader of the world's most powerful country during the most tense moments that highlighted that the talks would be anything but easy. Perhaps this will improve as the run progresses. Thomas does, however, have a believable chemistry with Hallie Foote (Rosalynn Carter), which makes for some nice attention-grabbing moments when Carter confides in his strong and supportive wife about his doubts about success and related frustrations as the discussions seem like they'll never end or result in anything productive. Although I did question the degree to which Wright has Mrs. Carter make appearances as the more contentious dialogues between Begin, Sadat, and President Carter rage on - particularly given the rest of the delegation members are (understandably logistics-wise) unseen - Foote serves her purpose well in the theatrical retelling. However, like Thomas, she's at her best when reminding the others that 'we're all human' - a main message and theme in the story.
As President Anwar Sadat, Khaled Nabawy makes a definite impression for the detail he puts into presenting his character at every moment of the play - from when President Sadat is caught 'dancing' in the woods, to his focused deliberations with Carter and to a greater extent, Begin. Strong, determined, savvy, his believability is off the charts. Ron Rifkin, as Prime Minister Begin, likewise excels in the tense moments, but also rises to the occasion in the lighter moments. His contributions to the discussion at Gettysburg and his event-shifting discussions with Thomas, as Carter, in the final scene proved particularly affecting and memorable on opening night.
As Nabawy and Rifkin, portraying their respective characters, do battle with one another over points of disagreement on matters of land, human rights, security, and the general environment in the Middle East, they give us a masterclass in acting. They provide nearly perfect examples of how to use elements of one's character's identity to define every moment of non-verbal and verbal expression, while still making the conversations appear as if they're happening in the moment and for the very first time, yet mindful of the long, tumultuous history between the two countries they represent. While I did feel that Wright's lens of telling the story is slightly biased in terms of making Sadat's perspective the most 'rational' (at least in comparison to Begin's), both actors do an extraordinary job at bringing their 'A' game to portray men who weren't exactly shrinking violets, liked to stand their ground, and were far from stupid about the possible or even probable ramifications of their actions. They allow us as the audience to fully understand the way Sadat and Begin rationalized not only their perspective on contentious issues, but the forces that shape those perspectives in mere moments.
At Arena, the mostly strong acting is well-complemented by well-purposed production elements. Walt Spangler's set captures the remoteness and coziness of the wooded Camp David environment. Jeff Sugg's projections also provide valuable 'true to life' historical and (then) contemporary context for the proceedings although they might not be very easily viewable by those on the extreme sides of the theatre. David Van Tieghem's original music and sound design sonically capture the tense environment during those nearly two weeks in which our story takes place. Special kudos must also be given to dialect coach Anita Maynard-Losh. The manner of speaking/accents that each actor employed for the most part seemed natural on opening night, specific, on-point, and not forced. It's a nice change in comparison to other productions I've seen that showcase people from different physical, social, and cultural locations.
Molly Smith (and Arena Stage) deserves an immeasurable amount of credit for taking this project on. True, it's not every day that there exists an opportunity for a US president like Jimmy Carter to see himself portrayed onstage during a crucial moment in his political career. The opening night was thus something of a real Washington experience. Yet, the care that she and the creative team take to present the material in the best way possible is even more commendable and should be appreciated by every audience. Admittedly, I am a sucker for new plays, but when they're as ambitious as this one, I get even more excited. This one is one to be excited about.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
"Camp David" plays through May 4, 2014 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater - 1101 6 Street, SW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-488-3300 or purchase them online.
Photo: (L to R) Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin, Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Khaled Nabawy as Anwar Sadat in Camp David at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Teresa Wood.