George Packer’s Laudable Debut; Mike Leigh’s Lamentable Latest

heilpern betrayed1h George Packer’s Laudable Debut; Mike Leigh’s Lamentable LatestWhy are New Yorker writers so stage-struck? Betrayed, George Packer’s adaptation of his 16,000-word New Yorker feature of the same name that exposed the U.S. government’s shameful indifference to the fate of its loyal Iraqi employees in Baghdad, is a memorable contribution to downtown’s Culture Project. It’s Mr. Packer’s first play, and it’s a trend.

Only a year ago, The New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Looming Tower, made his stage debut at Culture Project in a solo performance of his own script, My Trip to Al-Qaeda. At this rate, Anthony Lane will be performing his collected movie reviews. And why not? Henry James was famously stage-struck and look what happened to him. (All his plays were a bust.)

Mr. Packer doesn’t appear in Betrayed, thank goodness. There’s a limit. He sensibly leaves the acting to the ensemble of first-rate actors. Mr. Packer has written a play—not a political polemic or mini-lecture—which has been very effectively directed by Pippin Parker (a founder of Naked Angels). Betrayed couldn’t be more serious or shocking—and its neophyte playwright couldn’t be more thrilled.

It’s normal. Anyone who loves the theater as much as you and me and the New Yorker guys obviously do is bound to be stage-struck one way or another. Mr. Packer and Mr. Wright have both talked earnestly about “the immediacy that only theater can provide” and “bringing words to life as only theater can”—but don’t be fooled.

“You know, it’s still sort of unreal, to tell the truth,” the wide-eyed Mr. Packer has said about his theater debut. “In theater terms, this has been a nanosecond. From original conception to performance in eight months is nothing, from what I hear. I’d never been involved in a play that wasn’t a junior-high-school production. It’s kind of unreal and thrilling to see these actors and the set and the direction pulling together what has been raw life.”

 

MR. PACKER’S ACHIEVEMENT is to give his betrayed Iraqis a voice onstage. The play’s three central characters are composites drawn from the interviews in his widely admired New Yorker piece. There are some imperfections in the play version; the production at the tiny theater is necessarily modest. (It doesn’t try to soar imaginatively in the theatrical manner of the political docudrama Black Watch). It’s simply and effectively what it is: the human story of hundreds of loyal Iraqi interpreters—both Sunni and Shiite—who daily risk kidnapping, torture and beheading by insurgents to work for the Americans in Iraq. Why America callously abandoned them like pariahs to their fate is the dismaying question asked by Betrayed.

The Iraqis portrayed in the play were among those who welcomed the American invasion in 2003, and Mr. Packer supported the war at its inception, beginning with an influential New York Times article. Some still vilify him for it—pointing out that his lack of skepticism about the war encouraged its boosters. Perhaps, but in The New Yorker, as well as in his admirable book The Assassins’ Gate (2005), and now in Betrayed, Mr. Packer has brought to honorable light the moral shame of staggering American ignorance and lies in its conduct of the war.

Betrayed reveals a Catch-22 of Iraq: If America refuses asylum to the desperate Iraqi translators portrayed in the play, the chances are they’ll be hunted down and murdered; if they’re granted asylum, it signals the war in Iraq has failed.

According to The Times, the U.S. admitted just 1,600 Iraqi refugees in 2007 (though an estimated 4 million have fled their homes since the war began). In contrast to the U.S., tiny Sweden has admitted 20,000 refugees. “It is strange to think of becoming Swedish,” says Adnan at the end of Betrayed, though he’s one of the fortunate few to find refuge anywhere. “I will have to be like a small child again and learn a new language. My expertise is useless there. Sweden is not interested in Iraq—what is Iraq to Sweden?”