Benedictus – the name comes from a canticle which celebrates the birth of John the Baptist by praying for peace and deliverance from fear – is a political black-box thriller which presents an insoluble problem. Its considerable pleasures derive less from watching the efforts to solve it than from watching those efforts undone by greed, remembered humiliation and fulminating mistrust. More autopsy than surgery, Benedictus is nonetheless an extraordinary character study which makes the blood race and the heart break.
The problem is this: Iran is three months away from weaponizing its atomic program, and in consequence the United States has decided to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. Iran will not react supinely; thousands will die. On the other hand, millions may die if Iran’s brutal and aggressive rulers acquire nuclear weapons. And the clock is ticking too fast to give any of the players room to maneuver.
The play’s three main characters seem as well qualified as anyone to unwind this crisis. Ali Kermani (Michael Kramer) is a reformist and Iranian political leader who superficially recalls former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. Asher Motahedeh (Michael Tolaydo) is an Israeli arms merchant who has contacts deep in the American government. And Ben Martin (Conrad Feininger) is the American Ambassador to Italy, who has influence in the State Department on Iranian matters because of his expertise – and because he was one of the American hostages during Iran’s 1979-1981 occupation of the embassy.
They all have reasons to trust each other, as their history together reaches back to the tumultuous days in which the Iranian people overthrew the Shah, and instituted the theocracy which now controls the country. Kermani and Motahedeh suffered together as rebels against the Shah, and supported each other in the Shah’s prisons. Martin, who originally went to Iran as a diplomat in support of the new government, has reason to believe that Kermani was the man who prevented his execution while he was held captive.
But the years have made them strong, which is to say they have made them cynical. Like most political leaders, they have learned to prize ends over means, and as the play opens they have personal objectives which joust for their attention against the quest for peace. Kermani hopes to use a successful negotiation to springboard his long-shot Presidential campaign; Motahedeh is desperate to smuggle his sister and her family out of Iran; and Martin, who has ambitions for the Senate, cannot shake off the feeling of humiliation which his 444-day captivity forced upon him. The primacy of these personal objectives makes each character an uncertain warrior for the cause of peace, and ratchets up their untrustworthiness to unbearable levels.
Ambassador Martin’s dilemma is critical for American audiences, who shared his humiliation. The Iranian occupation of the American Embassy was the final nail in the coffin of the benighted Carter Administration, and ushered in twenty-eight years of more aggressive American foreign policy. Even now, it is impossible to think objectively about Mideast foreign policy without confronting the rage and shame many feel about the Iranian captivity.
To a certain extent, playwright Lerner and the international team of artists who collaborated with him prize ends over means as well. Their purpose is to make abstract political arguments about Mideast policy become real and personal to audiences, and if that requires an unusual amount of exposition, so be it. The dialogue in this play teaches, but it is also taut, and satisfying. If you are already an expert on the Middle East much of the explanation may be unnecessary, but I am not, and was grateful for the information.
The cast serves the production well. On the night I saw it, Kramer struggled a bit with his lines, but I bought him unhesitantly as a good man who has come to love power, and has become familiar with the compromises necessary to maintain it. Tolaydo and Feininger are even better. Tolaydo here plays a character who is completely different than the role he just left in Theater J’s fine The Accident, and he has Motahedeh down to a T – the cleverness, the thwarted idealism, the simmering volcanic rage which erupts in the play’s last minutes. And Feininger, who may be the area’s most underutilized actor, creates his hard-drinking, hard-thinking ambassador out of a thousand tiny movements – the way his hand trembles as he talks about his captivity, or how he seems to sweat when he reveals his plan to Kermani. All three do something, in character, very counterintuitive for an actor: they lie badly. For this we should probably credit Director Nassri.
Much of the dialogue takes place in a Catholic monastery (Richard Mancini plays a Monk) and David Ghatan has created a provocative set for it: slabs of gray hung in such a way as they outline a cross. The Cross of Redemption, thus, is created in an area of absence – the absence of greed, perhaps, or of selfishness or ego. Through such an absence, conceivably, a light might shine, allowing us, in the words of the Benedictus, “to give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
By Motti Lerner, with Mahmood Karimi-Hakak, Roberta Levitow, Daniel Michaelson and Torange Yeghiazarian
Directed by Rahaleh Nassri
Produced by Theater J
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
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