Intelligence takes us back to a simpler time in American politics, when outing a CIA agent to punish her husband for revealing that the administration started a war based on alternative facts was an actual scandal that could send people to jail.
If you’re in the market for a history lesson on the Valerie Plame affair, or if you just want to remember how angry you really felt during the Bush administration, this play is for you. As a dramatic work of art, however, it falls a little short.
The play is based on the true story of Valerie Plame (Hannah Yellend), a covert CIA operative whose cover was blown by Scooter Libby, a senior aide to then-Vice President Dick Cheney, in apparent retaliation for an article published by Plame’s husband Joe Wilson (Laurence Redmond) that debunked one of the central rationales behind the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. (Yes, they actually did that, and Scooter Libby was convicted of a felony for it.)
Interwoven in this narrative are two other stories. One is a fictionalized account of Plame’s recruitment and management of an asset, Dr. Malik Nazari (Ethan Hova), whom she hopes to have corroborate the intelligence the administration was using to make the case for war. The other is a narrative of domestic tension between Plame and Wilson owing to her dedication to her work.
As a die-hard political junkie, I really wanted to enjoy this more than I did, but the plot, direction and the performances left some things to be desired, and detracted from a concept that ought to have a lot of promise.
The story of Dr. Nazari is the most compelling of the three plotlines, but even it is not without its problems. Plame secures Dr. Nazari’s cooperation by borderline intimidating his nice Leyla (Nora Achrati) into persuading him, and the complicated relationship among the three of them even as they work toward the same goals is the most attractive part of the play. Unfortunately, without delving too much into plot, the specific actions taken by the characters don’t make ultimate sense in context, and it feels like this narrative was developed without the consultation of historians or intelligence experts who could have pointed out some possible procedural flaws.
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Aside from the Nazaris, the story arcs don’t offer significant opportunities for character development. Wilson vacillates uncharacteristically between being completely flippant about how his actions could affect their marriage and children, and being so concerned about holding the family together that he beseeches her to stop working right at the outbreak of the war he has been working so hard to stop. Further, Plame’s interactions with the CIA are represented on stage through conversations with only one supervisor, Elaine (Aahku Tuahnera Freeman). The tenor of these exchanges varies little and feels derivative in every iteration.
I’m also confused by the direction Yellend has been asked to take in performing this role. Throughout the entire play, she portrays Plame with an accent strongly reminiscent of Hollywood’s golden era, and seems to be trying to channel Vivien Leigh or Katharine Hepburn. This gets staid after an uninterrupted 90 minutes, especially as it doesn’t allow her to display a wide range of emotion and attitude in her portrayal.
The production elements are of very high quality. The minimalist mis en scene is appropriately stark, and the design is able to do much with little in an intriguing and effective way. The faux-concrete columns that make the centerpiece of the set are eerily reminiscent of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, whose violent destruction set in motion the events that led to the play. To heighten this, the production features projections of speeches from George W. Bush and members of his administration touting the necessity and success of the invasion of Iraq. It’s an aggressive and politically charged move, and it certainly fits the context of the play.
All in all, Intelligence has many bright spots, but it seems that both the script and the production could have used a second look. In this day and age, the subject matter certainly deserves an audience.
Intelligence by Jacqueline E. Lawton; Directed by Daniella Topol . Cast: Nora Achrati (Leyla Nazar); Aakhu Tuahnera Freeman (Elaine); Ethan Nova (Dr. Malik Nazari), Lawrence Redmond (Joseph Wilson); Hannah Yelland (Valerie Plame) . Set Designer: Misha Kachman . Costumes: Ivania Stack . Lighting: Kathy A. Perkins . Music and Sound: Jane Shaw . Projections: Jared Mezzocchi . Stage Manager: Trevor Riler . Dialect Coach: Liegh Wilson Smiley . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Dante Atkins.