A Life and a Career Seen Through the Prism of 9/11: ‘Fallaci’ at the Berkeley Rep

Marjan Neshat (left) and Concetta Tomei in the Berkeley Rep's "Fallaci" (photo by kevinberne.com)
Marjan Neshat (left) and Concetta Tomei in the Berkeley Rep’s “Fallaci” (photo by kevinberne.com)

Journalism is under the microscope in Fallaci, the new play from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Directed by Oskar Eustis, the fictional play is based on the life of Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who was famous for her interviews of provocative world leaders such as Henry Kissinger, Fidel Castro, Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein. Wright’s play examines the two sides of the journalist through the eyes of an idolizing young writer.

The first act introduces a reclusive Fallaci (played by Concetta Tomei with an enthralling gravitas) at home in her New York apartment. Twenty-five-year-old reporter Maryam (Marjan Neshat) finagles her way into Fallaci’s home to conduct an interview for a less-than-wholesome reason. The year is 2000, and Fallaci has been absent from the public eye for more than ten years. After initial hesitation, Fallaci opens up to Maryam, who is Muslim, reveling in her accounts of her interviews with Khomeini, Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi. She reveals how her family’s experience of nearly dying at the hands of the Nazis is the underlying reason behind her brazen questioning of the Middle East’s fascist leaders.Wright’s tight play allows Fallaci to recount her favorite anecdotes mostly in good humor, while Maryam provides historical context to Fallaci’s interviews and establishes the importance of that work.

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The second act takes us back to Fallaci’s apartment, but now it’s a post-9/11 world. Three years later, Maryam returns to finish her assignment. Fallaci has just published The Rage and the Pride, a best-selling book hypercritical of Islam as a religion and a culture. The former archenemy of fascist regimes is now a vocal proponent of the United States’ invasion of Iraq. Maryam has found success as a war correspondent, publishing her own book on the atrocities women face under Taliban rule. Armed with a new-found reputation, Maryam tries to grill Fallaci about what she sees as the hypocrisy of The Rage and the Pride, while questioning Fallaci’s intentions. Instead, Fallaci turns the tables on Maryam like only she can do. In doing so, many of the atrocities faced by Muslim women in the Middle East are confronted, and Maryam’s own, tragic family history is recounted.

The play’s final act finds Fallaci and Maryam communing the day after Fallaci’s death, and finishes with a shocking monologue from Maryam about the horrific punishment she suffered for doing her job, and the reasoning for her choices going forward. It makes for a gripping climax, one that elicited gasps from the audience but makes a statement about the continuing oppressive state of women living in  Middle Eastern Islamic countries.

A veteran war correspondent himself, Wright uses Maryam to explore Fallaci’s contradictions following 9/11. Maryam doesn’t flinch in their second meeting when criticizing the more egregious passages from Fallaci’s book, including statements that Muslim men breed like rats and are slowly invading European countries to overtake their cultures. We see how the grizzled reporter has become a new woman, with any hint of objectivity seemingly gone from her journalism. At what point, the audience must ask itself, is the line between journalism and opinion crossed?

Despite the play’s intensity, Wright weaves laughs into Fallaci’s anecdotes; the play entertains the audience as much as it informs it. Without Wright’s deft touch of humor, the play may have felt overwhelming to those unfamiliar with Fallaci’s work or some of the crimes perpetrated against women in the Middle East. Combined with Wright’s intellectually informing script, and the haunting tale of Maryam’s personal life, Fallaci is the thoughtful examination of the lives of two journalists trying to find their own way at separate points in their lives and their careers.

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