Waleed F. Zuaiter, Sevan Greene, and Mike Doyle
in Betrayed
(© Carol Rosegg)
Waleed F. Zuaiter, Sevan Greene, and Mike Doyle
in Betrayed
(© Carol Rosegg)
Filled with drama and urgency, George Packer's Betrayed -- currently making its world premiere at The Culture Project -- is that rare theater experience that commands absolute attention while watching it, and which continues to haunt the viewer long after the play ends. Knowing that it dramatizes the struggles of hundreds of real-life individuals whose peril has not yet abated only makes it more powerful.

This extraordinary new play is based upon interviews that Packer conducted with numerous Iraqis, which informed his March 2007 article in The New Yorker, "Betrayed: The Iraqis who trusted America the most." The piece drew national attention to the plight of Iraqi translators who worked for the American government at great personal risk to themselves, and whose safety was virtually ignored even after they came under threat and started dying.

The play tells the stories of three young Iraqis -- Adnan (Waleed F. Zuaiter), Laith (Sevan Greene), and Intisar (Aadya Bedi) -- who are composites of individuals with whom Packer interacted. Told through a combination of flashbacks, direct address to the audience, and dialogue-driven scenes, Betrayed documents the courage, fears, and humanity of its characters. While the play has a distinct political viewpoint, it is no mere polemic. Packer is quick to point out the injustices that the Iraqi workers have to put up with from their American employers, but he also chronicles the dark humor that they use to keep each other in good spirits. For example, when Intisar says to Adnan, "Everything from your tongue is a little explosion," Laith quickly adds, "He's a suicide mouth bomber."

Zuaiter's amicable persona immediately gets the audience on Adnan's side, making the character's struggles seem even more unjust. Greene captures both the bright-eyed optimism that Laith has at the beginning of his employment by the Americans, as well as the gradual disillusionment and anger that comes to replace it. Bedi scores with a powerful monologue that details the precarious position that Intisar is in as both a woman and an employee of the American government. Her final, wordless scene is equally gripping, and made even more impacting by Eric Shim's excellent sound design.

Mike Doyle portrays Bill Prescott, the kindly but often clueless supervisor of the three Iraqis. The journey he goes on within the play is equally moving, as he discovers that even if he can't make the policy changes that would safeguard the men and women working for him, he can still make a difference and help to save lives. It's comforting to note that although Prescott is also a composite figure, there's a real-life analogue for his more heroic actions in the person of Kirk Johnson, who has gone to great lengths to assist a number of former government employees in finding asylum outside of Iraq. Rounding out the cast are Jeremy Beck and Ramsey Faragallah in multiple roles that are usually too brief to make much of an impression, although Beck does do a particularly nasty turn as a security officer whose own biases seep through his interactions with the Iraqi staff.

Deftly directed by Pippin Parker, the production achieves the difficult feat of clearly presenting an ignominious situation caused by our government, without becoming overly sentimental. And while the conclusion is bittersweet, it is also not without hope.