stage dive

Theater Review: The Power of Just Words, in Lawrence Wright’s The Human Scale

Lawrence Wright has a gentle, cottony voice, with just a ghost of Texas in it. It’s a voice that’s not showing off or running for office or trying to sell you something — other than a hard truth or two. It’s a voice you’d like to hear reading you the news, and in The Human Scale, Wright’s latest docu-theater multimedia lyceum (and the follow-up to his modest Off Broadway hit My Trip to Al Qaeda), you can hear him fighting that very tendency. A born nonactor, Wright’s an interesting stage presence, if only for his total lack of stage presence. In the daylight, he’s a New Yorker staff writer, a tireless chronicler of the Mideast and the Muslim world whose reporting on the devastation of Hamas-led Gaza forms the basis for this show. In his writing, we sense an impassioned man; onstage, we meet the same man, only without a performer’s normal emotional portals. Everything here is expressed textually. The show isn’t great theater, and occasionally suffers from just the sort of well-intentioned NPR hypnosis it’s meant to combat. But that’s not to say The Human Scale lacks the power to devastate. Wielding word and image with a grace that conceals the wallop behind it, Wright has the power to break his own trance, and ours, as well. It may not be a sustained magic he creates, but it’s unassailably sincere.

His show is an annotated recent history of Israeli-Palestinian relations, i.e., the disastrous years following the capture and ransom of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit by Gaza’s Hamas leadership in 2006. Wright’s prime metaphor is economic: He forces us to ask the value of the dead and wounded. But what should that value be? “Shalit’s captors demanded a ransom of 1,000 prisoners. How did they arrive at that figure?” he asks, then presses further: “Is he more valuable because he’s a Jew?” Wright chronicles how Shalit grew in value as a symbol of victimhood to the enraged Israeli public, and how, in turn, his worth as a hostage was inflated for Hamas: The ransom eventually jumped to 1,400 prisoners. It’s an inflationary trap: Shalit, now a national fetish, becomes more and more valuable, as life in Gaza becomes increasingly cheap. Meanwhile, thousands of civilians die as the Israelis pound the Strip (now designated a “hostile entity,” meaning open-season on all Gazans) in an attempt to humble Hamas and recover Shalit. Many of the dead are children-children who, at any rate, have been raised to expect nothing out of life but “marytrdom.” Wright’s one moment of jet-black comic relief arrives when he shows a montage of clips from the Hamas-produced children’s program “Pioneers of Tomorrow”: As puppet after puppet meets a messy, tragic end at the hands of the demon-Israelis, nervous laughter ripples around the theater, and our instinctive irony has us waiting for Robert Smigel to jump out of the bushes. Instead, the show’s young host, Saraa, turns to the camera and promises to liberate Palestine “from the filth of the Zionists.”

Children preaching genocide, avenging dead puppets: Stuff like this hardly needs any mummery to accompany it. Luckily, Wright is no mummer. He’s practically the antithesis of the orotund Mike Daisey: His metier is prose, written and recited, not monologue per se, and the lack of ornament and cajolery in his delivery is part of his power. So I wonder why he needs a kitschy-austere little reading desk at stage center, stacked Colbert-ishly with books and papers to burnish his credentials. And I wonder why Wright and director Oskar Eustis insist on wedging in a couple of stylized, self-consciously theatrical reenactments of his adventures in Israel and Gaza. Apparently, Wright once fainted during an interview with Hamas leaders (while in the midst of a “gastric rebellion” he explains, with unnecessary and unfortunate specificity). It’s a good story, but Wright’s mid-show collapse is one of the odder, more off-key things you’re likely to see onstage this season.

But then, The Human Scale isn’t really anecdotal. This isn’t a personal essay. Its power isn’t in Wright’s embeddedness in the situation; there’s no narrative arc to speak of, no linear “trip to Al-Qaeda” to recount. No: The energy here, sublimated beneath the reportage, resides in the castrated anger of a fatally well-informed outsider/bystander. In Wright, there’s something of all of us in his audience — we, the impotent NPR listeners of the world. There’s also a little of the trammeled fury of Tony Kushner’s Homebody, along with some of the weary, quasi-paternal disappointment of David Hare’s Via Dolorosa, another one-man lament about the Holy Land. (Every culture east of Greece seems to infuriate the Anglophone mind to the point of poetry; Wright’s not entirely immune to this, and indeed, this quiet, ineluctable but never-disgusting strain of Western bias informs, personalizes, even enriches his account.)

Wright, however, is not a lyricist but a journalist, with journalistic resources at the ready. His frustration and judgment never exceed the bounds of what he can responsibly report. He tallies the tit-for-tat bloodletting we’re all so familiar with, but he’s careful to match every casualty figure with an image: the legless, armless trunk of a still-living bomb victim outside a leveled Israeli café; the graying corpses of a Gazan family mowed down by Israeli gunships at the seashore; the teenage rock throwers of the First Intifada being restrained so riot-police can deliberately and systematically break their arms. This is where we feel Wright pushing back against the hypnotic pendulum swing of attack-and-counterattack, the numbing media scorecards of faceless dead on both sides. He wants to seize the pendulum, to freeze it in place, to stop time long enough not just to count the dead, but to see their faces. “As long as the scale that measures human lives is so badly out of balance, can there ever be anything like peace?” Wright asks. The answer hangs in the air, but Wright lets it pass through us silently, like a gamma wave. Then he tells us a Bible story in his downy voice. It’s one of the ugly ones, I’m sorry to say. It won’t help get you to sleep.

At 3LD Art and Technology Center, 80 Greenwich Street, through October 31.

Theater Review: The Power of Just Words, in Lawrence Wright’s The Human Scale