The Playgoer: Where the story's at

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

Where the story's at

To recap...

Phillip Weiss's cover story in The Nation (online last Thursday, currently getting out to subscribers, on newsstand immanently) is definitely the most thoroughly reported and comprehensive account of the whole NYTW-Rachel Corrie mess so far, informatively blending both the political and theatrical issues.

Here are the main newsbreaking highlights, even to those already familiar with the basics:

- While the main source of the pressure on Artistic Director Nicola is still a mystery, the causes of the objections are really specified here (not just the vague "edginess" Nicola previously cited). In short, it's all about the "tunnels"--the secret gun-running routes bringing ammo from Egypt to Palestinian fighters. (You may remember Rothstein citing this in his early March 6 NYT essay. It's a talking point that's been around a while, it seems.) The "tunnels" argument is supposed to justify Israel's actions in Gaza and reveal the real-life Rachel Corrie as a) dangerously naive or b) a complicit terrorist sympathizer.

- Royal Court came to New York to meet with Nicola & co (presumably the previously mentioned January 31 meeting) because they "didn't feel comfortable with what they [NYTW] was saying]."

-one of the Royal Court heads quotes a NYTW staffer as actually using the phrase "mollifying the Jewish community." Again, there's that supposedly monolithic "Jewish community" again...Theatre critic Alisa Solomon is quoted making an important cautionary point, by the way: "There's something a little too familiar about the image of Jews pulling the puppet strings behind the scenes." Here, here. Unfortunately, in this case the unfortunate image was put out there by.... Jim Nicola. As a defense! What else can one do but ask for elaboration and answers?

- Among Nicola's many considered plans for "contextualization" (i.e. "mollifying") was to commission a second "Israeli-view" documentary piece by Emily Mann--the McCarter Theatre head whose been a pioneer in the genre. (Documentary, that is, not Israel). No word from her yet...

- New York Sun printed a piece last year by Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman denouncing the play after seeing it in London. (The Sun has no free online archive.) Despite a great arts section, the general editorial policy of The Sun virtually has defined itself as a right-wing, specifically pro-Israel paper. No doubt this op-ed and its talking points circulated far and wide--yet beneath the radar of the NYT and the NYTW constituencies.

-A major world-wide PR firm, Ruder Finn, was supposed to "represent the play" in New York but pulled out. (Weiss does not make explicit if they are the firm usually engaged by NYTW or whether they were brought in special.) Weiss describes this as a "fatal blow" to the project's life at the theatre....Some interesting comments about Ruder Finn in Comments below, btw.

-Weiss's interview with Tony Kushner get the playwright extensively on the record for the first time. And for that, Bravo Tony! (Weiss characterizes this post about him here as making him into a "war criminal." I actually had "missing person" in mind--or "Where's Waldo" but oh well.) Caryl Churchill's objections are also, for the first time, noted but not quoted.

In other news, the story is really spreading to all kinds of media now. James Wolcott brings it to the "legit" blogosphere. (After Andrew Sullivan dropped it after day one! I thought you were into free-speech Middle East issues, Andrew?) Also Varietyy has an interesting piece treating this in the context of many other political-intimidation cases. They do get one thing wrong, though:

The decision by the New York Theater Workshop, which was attributed to complications with the lead actors' schedules, has prompted a barrage of e-mail messages accusing the theater managers of cowardice.

It was of course Alan Rickman's schedule used by Nicola as an excuse, not the one actor's (Megan Dodds). Makes sense from Variety's perspective, though--Rickman's not in it? Why the fuss?

So, in short, read the Nation if you want the whole story to this point. The fact there are still some unanswered questions--who was the specific source of pressure, when or will the show go on--means there will unbelievably be a Week 4 now.


Anonymous said...

When you cite the Alisa Solomon quote, you raise an important point that's been bugging me for the last few days.

In Thursday's NYT story, McKinley writes:

Ms. Moffat was adamant that no outside force--including donors, artists or potential business partners--had threatened the company. "Not one person said to us, 'Don't do the play,'" Ms. Moffat said.

But in the initial Times story of February 28, we were told something very different:

Yesterday, James C. Nicola, the artistic director of the workshop, said he had decided to postpone the show after polling local Jewish religious and community leaders as to their feelings about the work...

In particular, the recent electoral upset by Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, and the sickness of Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, had made "this community very defensive and very edgy," Mr. Nicola said, "and that seemed reasonable to me."

The upshot seems to be that Nicola let the impression fester for two weeks that an unnamed group of local Jewish leaders had talked him out of letting the production go forward. I don't think there's any other way to read it.

So, in other words--if we assume that the new party line is the accurate one--Nicola, looking for a persuasive explanation for the cancellation, invented the excuse that a group of Jewish bigwigs had basically forced his hand.

Of course, Nicola's intention wasn't to invoke the stereotypes of shadowy Jews manipulating things behind the scenes--I don't believe that for a second.

But in looking for a sympathetic defense for his decision, there's no question that he wound up reinforcing those very sterotypes.

Anonymous said...

This is only one of many contradictions. The other most significant is that Nicola still insists that all he ever wanted to do was to honor "Rachel Corrie's powerful voice," but the latest reporting makes clear that what he actually wanted to do was throw into a question that voice by having talk-backs, and a companion piece focusing on Palestinian violence.