What if several months before the events of 9/11, an important U.S. government official had learned of a planned terrorist attack—by air, on an Eastern city, in September?  Could the attacks on the World Trade Center have been prevented had this official spoken to the right higher-ups?  This hypothetical (or is it?) situation is the basis of O Jerusalem, by A.R. Gurney, now getting a first-rate Los Angeles premiere by The Production Company.

A sign above the stage announces that we are sometime in “The Future” as a young woman (Gretchen Koerner) holds up an several-inches-thick play manuscript she tells us was discovered shortly after 9/11, then drops it to the floor with a thud, informing us that what we’ll be seeing tonight is that play, but with multiple cuts and adjustments.  Clearly, what we are in for is not your usual evening of theater.

O Jerusalem is a comedy (or a drama, as you like it) about the world pre and post September 11, 2001. It is the story of a 50ish man, Hartwell Clark (Don Schlossman) and the women in his life—his wife (Elly Jaresko, who also plays multiple roles), his longtime friend Sally (Koerner), and a former lover, Amira (Lauren Campedilli) who returns to his life with a plea.

Hartwell is a high-ranking executive in a large oil corporation, Koerner tells us in one of the many instances in which O Jerusalem’s actors break character and the fourth wall. He is, she foretells, a man who will in the process of “doing good” lose his life. Amira is a Christian Arab who returns to Hartwell’s life following a 30-year absence in January of 2001, soon after Hartwell has been named Deputy Assistant Secretary Of State For Near Eastern Affairs.  When Hartwell tells his wife of his appointment (which has come in the form of a personal phone call from a former college classmate named George W. Bush), she is immediately suspicious of his motives in accepting it.  Does he want to see her again?

“This scene goes on forever, so let’s just switch to…” announces Schlossman, and sooner than you can sing “Reunited (And It Feels So Good),” Hartwell is in Jordan and meeting Amira for the first time since he was a Fulbright Scholar in Beirut and she was his instructor. “What brings you here?” asks Hartwell of the now widowed Amira. “You,” is her succinct reply, and she informs him that she will soon be in Tunisia visiting her married daughter, a visit which will not coincidentally coincide with his stay there. 

A friend (Michael Rachlis, who like Jaresko plays many roles) warns Hartwell that Amira is “tied to some radical Islamic organization” but that does not stop Hartwell from meeting her once again in Tunisia. 

As Hartwell and Amira recall old times (and old feelings), he wonders whether deep down she was the reason he accepted this job. “We had a good thing going,” he reminds her, adding, “Better than I have back home.”  Amira, however, has something far more serious than romance on her mind.  “Your country’s in great danger,” she tells him, and goes on to predict that America will soon suffer the worst terrorist attack imaginable, and on its very soil, information which she has obtained from the most reliable of sources, her son, a young man who is part of the Islamic extremist group Hamas.  Though her son refuses to talk to the U.S. Government, he might talk to a friend about his plan for peace in the Middle East, Amira tells Hartwell, and when he expresses misgivings about meeting with a terrorist, Amira shoots back, “You throw the word terrorist around the way you used to throw around Communist.” Besides, her son might easily be, or could have been, his own son.

Will Hartwell act upon the information he has learned? Will he meet with Amira’s son? Will he be listened to or considered a loose cannon by the U.S. government?  Will romance be reignited between Hartwell and Amira? Will he and Sally become more than just “one of those male-female friendships that goes on for years?”  Will Hartwell be able to bring about peace in the Middle East?

These are the questions that may—or may not—be answered in Gurney’s compelling, thought-provoking, funny, and totally original play, a work of imaginative theater that manages to break the rules of linear storytelling without ever being pretentious or artsy-fartsy.  The actors comment on scenes, fast forward past the “boring” parts, hold cue card “subtitles” when Amira speaks Arabic, set the scene by revealing the next of a series of photos atop a stage-side easel, etc.

Helming the TheProdCo production is Tiger Reel, a director who clearly understands Gurney’s intentions and stages the play with imagination and flair. He has also cast a splendid quintet of actors, each of whom is a perfect fit for his or her role(s).

Schlossman has just the look of a longtime State Department functionary and as Hartwell becomes more and more deeply involved with Amira and Sally and in the latter’s efforts to avert a mass tragedy, his performance really catches fire.  Campedelli does equally fine work in a rarely seen look at an educated modern Arab woman (speaking occasional Arabic with considerable credibility) and it’s a pleasure to see the charismatic Koerner center stage after being underused in last season’s Coffee Will Make You Black. Scenes between Schlossman and his two leading ladies positively crackle with sexual undercurrents. Talented newcomer Rachlis adds a dash of youthful cuteness to the cast, painting amusing portraits of characters as diverse as a no-nonsense employee of the Bureau Of Public Affairs and a live-and-let-live Israeli cabdriver. Jaresko is so good, especially in a very funny turn as an uptight government employee who loves the U.S. “every day and night” that one wishes Gurney had written more for her to do.

August Vivirito’s as always excellent set design provides just the right nondescript backdrop required by Gurney’s multi-setting tale and his costumes are particularly well-chosen. Thumbs up to for Reel’s sound design.

Following its maiden season as the most honored new L.A. theater company, TheProdCo continues its string of topnotch productions with this Gurney gem, which in December will be joined in rep by a limited engagement of The Woman In Black.  Theatergoers in search of something different from the usual collection of A Christmas Carols and Holiday Specials can do no better than to check out O Jerusalem.

The Production Company, Chandler Studio Theatre, 12443 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
November 14, 2008

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