Rita Wolf and Stephen Rowe in O Jerusalem
(Photo: © Peter Jacobsen)
Rita Wolf and Stephen Rowe in O Jerusalem
(Photo: © Peter Jacobsen)
September 11, 2001 had a profound effect upon New York's theater community, on both personal and artistic levels. The Flea Theater, located below Canal Street and not too far from the site of the World Trade Center, is now producing its second major show reacting to the tragedy. The first, Anne Nelson's The Guys, was a moving drama about a female journalist who uses her writing skills to help a fire captain compose eulogies for his men who died on that fateful day. Emotional without being overly sentimental, the play was an intimate, gut-level response to a horrific tragedy. The Flea's latest production, A.R. Gurney's O Jerusalem, takes a completely different approach: Cross-cutting between the recent past and the far future, it is playful in form and attempts to place the events of 9/11/01 within a larger political context.

As O Jerusalem begins, the actors tell the audience that they are performing a play that was found amidst the personal effects of its author, who we quickly realize is not meant to mean A.R. Gurney. A digital screen hangs above the actors' heads, declaring the time to be "The Future." The players introduce the roles that they will be filling and note that they are all wearing authentic period costumes.

The story revolves around Hartwell Clark (Stephen Rowe), a privileged white male who had gone to school with George W. Bush and who, thanks to his connections, finds himself appointed "deputy assistant secretary of state for near Eastern affairs" at the beginning of 2001. While overseas, he renews an acquaintance with his former lover, Amira (Rita Wolf), a Palestinian woman who tries to get Hartwell to pitch to his superiors a new plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is an added urgency to her request as Amira's son, active in the radical Islamic resistance organization HAMAS, brings news that he has heard from reliable sources that the U.S. will be the target of a major terrorist attack on its home soil. The play also focuses on Sally (Priscilla Shanks), an old friend of Hartwell's who is brought into the action when questioned by the FBI regarding Hartwell's relationship with Amira. As O Jerusalem progresses, the digital screen changes accordingly to clue the audience in as to how much time is elapsing between scenes, with the dates drawing inexorably closer to September 11, 2001.

Despite the heavy themes, Gurney's writing is full of wit and humor. He undercuts the play's melodramatic qualities by having the characters call attention to them, remarking that a certain scene always makes the performer cry or that another is overly sentimental and irrelevant to the plot, so they're skipping it. The Flea's artistic director, Jim Simpson, proves once again that he's one of the most skillful and dynamic directors around. The framing device never seems forced and the pacing is flawless. Simpson keeps the action moving at a crisp pace despite the multiple changes in location and time.

Since the convention of a play within a play is established early on, the actors often talk directly to the audience while making the necessary changes in Kyle Chepulis' sparse yet versatile set. Two "swing" performers (Mercedes Herrero and Chaz Mena) play all of the supporting roles, which include an overly patriotic FBI agent and a Jewish driver for the Tel Aviv car service. The ensemble cast is quite strong, injecting humor and charm into the proceedings while still managing to address the seriousness of the subject matter.

The only major misstep comes at the end of the play. The action narrows its focus onto Hartwell, who becomes an unlikely hero figure. It's obvious that events have changed him, but viewing the play as one man's personal journey negates the wonderful range of perspectives that made the earlier sections so effective. A coda, set in the future and showing two potential outcomes to Hartwell's story, seems unnecessary and even disturbing. But despite this problematic ending, O Jerusalem should definitely be seen, thought about, and possibly argued over.