Review: In The Ally, a Jewish College Professor Is Asked to Denounce Israel

Itamar Moses’s ripped-from-the-headlines drama makes its world premiere at the Public Theater.

Josh Radnor stars in Itamar Moses’s The Ally, directed by Lila Neugebauer, at the Public Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

Itamar Moses’s new drama, The Ally, couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune time. Announced as part of the Public Theater’s 2023-24 season months before the October 7 attack on Israel, it’s about Asaf (Josh Radnor), a Jewish college professor who signs a sweeping social justice manifesto in solidarity with Baron (Elijah Jones), a Black student whose cousin has just been murdered by the police. He signs because Baron asks him to, despite his misgivings about a subsection denouncing Israel as an apartheid state actively committing genocide.

This is the very clause that attracts the attention of Rachel (Madeline Weinstein), a progressive Jewish undergrad who wants to host a controversial speaker alongside Students for Palestinian Justice. They need a faculty sponsor and Asaf seems like the perfect candidate. Will Asaf keep his mouth shut through his growing discomfort, or will he grow a spine and finally tell his allies what he really thinks?

Radnor gives the most painfully relatable performance of the season as Asaf, the child of Israeli immigrants who desperately wants to be on the right side of history (but more importantly, on the right side of his progressive students and colleagues). He’s like a polar bear tap-dancing on a melting glacier, keen to hold the sensible middle ground even as it evaporates beneath him.

Josh Radnor plays Asaf, Madeline Weinstein plays Rachel, Cherise Boothe plays Nakia, and Michael Khalid Karadsheh plays Farid in Itamar Moses’s The Ally, directed by Lila Neugebauer, at the Public Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

Moses shows us how rhetorical combat pushes people into political corners they would rather not occupy (it is an excellent companion piece to Andy Boyd’s Three Scenes in the Life of a Trotskyist). Throughout, we hear a variety of opinions about Israel and Palestine — and how this relates, if at all, to America’s struggle for racial justice. Moses steel mans everyone’s arguments, so we get the most convincing case for each position. This is impressive enough, but Moses’s ability to temper these fiery arguments with genuine humor makes The Ally a dramatic full-body workout, engaging us both intellectually and emotionally and making us feel the burn for days after.

This is a talky play, and at two hours, 40 minutes that could spell disaster under the guidance of a less experienced director. Luckily, Lila Neugebauer delivers a staging that foregrounds Moses’s text. The wood paneling of Lael Jellinek’s set suggests a university setting, while its open format allows for the instant scene transitions Moses’s script calls for. Little bumps in Reza Behjat’s lighting change the way we relate to the space, while Bray Poor’s understated sound design gives us a sense of the unstable world beyond this safe space. Sarita Fellows’s contemporary costumes complement the performances rather than doing their work for them.

And when you get performances as great as these, it’s essential to clear everything else out of their way. Ben Rosenfield is ready to dominate the Supreme Court as Reuven, a Jewish PhD candidate who implores Asaf to pull out of Rachel’s event, calling it “a public self-flagellation… a performance of virtue for the goyim.” An emotional catch in his voice that sacrifices nothing in terms of clarity, he warns Asaf, “I think you will find that you are being taken advantage of. By people who, in fact, hate you.”

Ben Rosenfield and Josh Radnor appear in Itamar Moses’s The Ally, directed by Lila Neugebauer, at the Public Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

And it’s hard not to jump to that conclusion with Farid (Michael Khalid Karadsheh), a Palestinian student who is content to leave the talking to Rachel (Weinstein is hilarious in this role, producing woke buzzwords with the zeal of a card player who has just shouted “Uno”). Farid’s silence becomes ever more conspicuous until it boils over in a wrenching monologue that Karadsheh makes us feel in our guts. The audience shifts uncomfortably as he lists off nonviolent Palestinian activists, none of whose names I’ve ever heard, and whose activism has made little to no difference. Is it any wonder that a younger generation of Palestinians has turned toward violence?

Unexpectedly, a love triangle buzzes underneath this sociopolitical drama. Nakia (an adamantine Cherise Boothe) is a Black radical and Asaf’s ex-girlfriend. She’s also the author of the manifesto. Asaf’s wife, Gwen (a cautiously indulgent Joy Osmanski), wonders if residual feelings are clouding his judgment. A university administrator negotiating a major expansion into a historically Black neighborhood, she gently encourages her husband and quietly hopes he doesn’t do anything to screw up the deal. Moses paints a grand canvas of personal and political motivations that captures the truth far better than any social justice manifesto ever could.

Throughout The Ally, no one seriously questions why a document about police violence against Black Americans needs to have a section about Israel. This is because so many in the academic elite have internalized the assumptions of intersectionality, the notion that our overlapping identities (race, gender, ethnicity, religion and, all too rarely, class) contribute to a mosaic of oppression, all of which is connected and must be confronted simultaneously. It’s a compelling idea in theory, but in practice and under pressure it mostly forces people to decide which of their tribal affiliations is most valuable to them as they jettison luxury beliefs in the same way a first-class passenger on the Titanic might cast off a cumbersome suitcase. That’s true for Asaf in The Ally, as it has been for so many liberal Jews in the wake of October 7. I suspect that, in the coming years, we will all have to make such choices.


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The Ally

Closed: April 7, 2024