Review: Unwinnable Wars Lead to Impossible Debates in ‘The Ally’

This campus drama takes on weighty issues of the moment, from Israel and antisemitism to colonialist violence and structural racism.

Josh Radnor, Madeline Weinstein, Cherise Boothe, and Michael Khalid Karadsheh in The Ally. Joan Marcus

The Ally | 2hrs 40mins. One intermission. | Public Theater | 440 Lafayette Street | 212-967-7555

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Asaf Sternheim (Josh Radnor) may be a teacher at the unnamed university that is the setting of Itamar MosesThe Ally, but he’s the one getting lectured. Whether it’s a lacerating diatribe from a Judaica scholar before intermission, or an anguished screed by a Palestinian-born student after it, Asaf spends much stage time holding his tongue in figurative sackcloth as centuries of Middle East grievance are poured, like ashes, over his head. Asaf’s a playwright, so maybe the guy’s taking notes for his next piece.

The Ally is a campus drama (flecked with comedy) about the gap between easy performative virtue and unsolvable moral dilemmas, such as structural racism in America or peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. The two issues—#BlackLivesMatter and #FreePalestine—become linked when Asaf agrees to sign a petition circulated by one of his writing students (Elijah Jones), whose cousin was shot and killed by campus police who believed he was stealing a car. Asaf balks at a section of the 20-page document that calls for the university to divest itself of ties to Israel. Why, he wonders, is Israel is the only country aside from the U.S. called out for colonialist violence against Black and brown people? Jewish, atheist, and confidently liberal, Asaf senses an undercurrent of antisemitism in the otherwise righteous statement of protest. When his wife, Gwen (Joy Osmanski)—who works for the university to help buy local property for an expansion—questions Asaf’s discomfort, he retorts, “My ‘feelings’ about Israel are the . . . reasonable ones.” Which are? “That there were strong arguments for creating it, so it’s maybe good that it exists, but that I don’t like a lot of things it actually does.”

Madeline Weinstein, Michael Khalid Karadsheh, and Elijah Jones in The Ally. Joan Marcus

And there you basically have it. For the next two and a half hours, Asaf will find himself in an ideological no-man’s-land of outraged students, a Black activist, Nakia (Cherise Boothe), who happens to be his ex-college girlfriend, and his own will not to let anti-Jewish prejudice be absorbed into a woke agenda. When Jewish student Rachel (Madeline Weinstein) and her classmate Farid (Michael Khalid Karadsheh) ask Asaf to sponsor a new student group that circumvents the Jewish Student Union’s prohibition against inviting anti-Israel speakers, Asaf warily agrees. So the kids invite a historian who argues that Israel’s wars have been pretexts for stealing more land. Appalled, Jewish PhD candidate Reuven (Ben Rosenfield) confronts Asaf in his office, telling him, “You’re a man of principle. . . . But I think you will find that you are being taken advantage of. By people who, in fact, hate you.”

Strong words. Which lead to more strong words. Page-filling blocks of strong words as Moses shows us how he can articulate—passionately and eloquently—each side of the argument, if not make it terribly dramatic. Because for all the fervent acting and scrupulous staging by Lila Neugebauer on a pointedly neutral-corporate set (by Lael Jellinek), there’s not a lot of play in The Ally. If you hope that Asaf and Nakia will go for drinks, reminisce, and end up in bed again, nope. Suspect violence may break out during one of the lengthy gabfests? Sorry. For better or worse, Moses avoids any plot devices that might distract from the heaps of rhetoric and dialectical flourishes. There is a touching final scene in which Asaf consults a rabbi (also played by Boothe), but it smacks of artificial closure, leaving us pretty much we began. 

Josh Radnor in The Ally. Joan Marcus

In previous plays (Back Back Back, Bach at Leipzig, Completeness), Moses has shown tremendous intellectual energy and structural inventiveness, whether dissecting baseball, Baroque music, or theoretical algorithms. His book for The Band’s Visit was, on the other hand, keenly emotional and perfectly entwined with David Yazbek’s score. Mostly, Moses can’t help being subversive and funny—a neurotic know-it-all with a big heart. I can see how The Ally could have gone in an Ibsen-ish direction with more eventful plotting and a big, tragic finish. Or it might have veered into Molière country, with Asaf’s eagerness to both be right and righteous leading to farcical complications and hypocrisy. Given the weight of his topic, and the current bloodshed in Gaza, Moses keeps it earnest. He couldn’t afford to be morally irresponsible and viciously irreverent. Which is a shame, because, in my opinion, that makes good theater. 

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Review: Unwinnable Wars Lead to Impossible Debates in ‘The Ally’