Lawrence Wright reinvents the indomitable Oriana Fallaci

Concetta Tomei portrays legendary journalist Oriana Fallaci in Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of Fallaci by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com
Concetta Tomei portrays legendary journalist Oriana Fallaci in Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of “Fallaci” by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright. Photo: kevinberne.com

The worldwide premiere of Fallaci, although distinctive and thought provoking, is almost as problematic as was Oriana Fallaci herself. Yet, it’s about time that her life was dramatized. A charismatic, powerful and controversial journalist and writer, Fallaci (1929-2006) took on, and bested, the most influential political interviewees of her day: the Ayatollah Khomeini, Yasser Arafat, Indira Gandhi, Henry Kissinger and Golda Meir.

Rather than being the objective observer, she was a starring player in her interviews. Much to the consternation of others, Fallaci was known for telling different versions of her background. Nevertheless, her father, an Italian resistance fighter during World War II, seems to have skilled Oriana with bravery and courage.

Lawrence Wright’s two-person play begins in 2000 with a young Iranian-American woman, Maryam, (ably performed by Narjan Neshat) attempting to interview an aging Oriana Fallaci (skillfully acted by Concetta Tomei) for Fallaci’s New York Times obituary (to be used when needed). Oriana has receded from public view because of cancer.

Marjan Neshat portrays a young woman sent to interview legendary journalist Oriana Fallaci.    Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com
Marjan Neshat portrays a young woman sent to interview legendary journalist Oriana Fallaci. Photo: kevinberne.com

In this first scene, Fallaci is so formidable that she easily becomes the interviewer rather than the interviewee. Fallaci, literary and figuratively in center stage, instructs Maryam on conducting an interview Fallaci-style. She explains how she “finds the lie” and sees an interview as “mortal combat.”


The next time the two women meet, it is 2003. Both have grown in dissimilar ways since the 9/11 attacks. Maryan has matured and gained insight and confidence. She has embraced Islam and become a force for bettering Iranian women’s lives. Oriana, conversely, has become rabidly anti-Muslim, a poster child for the right wing. Fallaci wrote three bestselling books critical of Islamic extremists and Islam. The mentor/mentee relationship had transmogrified and we see Maryam ruthlessly conducting the interview.

Self portrait of Oriana Fallaci. Photo courtesy of Edoardo Perazzi / Fallaci private collections
Self portrait of Oriana Fallaci. Photo courtesy of Edoardo Perazzi / Fallaci private collections

Interspersed with the more interesting political discussions, the women divulge confidences about themselves, focusing notably on their fathers. Were their fathers heroes or villains? How have the fathers affected their daughters? Although initially interesting, the play meanders a bit too much into psychobabble about the forces and motives behind their fathers’ behavior. For a ninety-minute no-intermission play, Fallaci dragged some as it veered into undistinguished personal dialogues. The final scene leaps to a spiritual ending that seems to have been tacked on the rest of the play.

Lawrence Wright has earned international recognition as an award-winning journalist, screenwriter and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning nonfiction award, The Looming Tower. His book is also about Islam, but it focuses on the background and the conditions that produced the people behind the attack. Perhaps he decided that Fallaci needed jarring personal conflict and resolution in order to satisfy audiences.

Despite my complaints, Oriana Fallaci’s brilliant personality is fascinatingly presented and is more than enough to carry the show. Oskar Eustis’s concise direction and Concetta Tomei’s talent adds significantly to the theatrical experience.

Fallaci is playing at Berkeley Rep through April 21, 2013. For information and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.


Related:
Lawrence Wright confronts his hero through “Fallaci” [03.05.13]

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