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THEATER REVIEW

War, peace ... what's the rush?

'Benedictus' tackles hot-button Mideast issues in a leisurely manner at New LATC.

December 03, 2007|David Ng | Times Staff Writer

In a not-so-improbable scenario set in the not-so-distant future, the U.S. is preparing its troops to invade Iran. Armed missiles aimed at the capital city of Tehran are set to launch in less than 48 hours. World War III, we're told, is just around the corner. So why does everyone look like they're sleepwalking?

The diplomats in "Benedictus," a new drama at the New LATC, move as though they have all the time in the world. Worse, they talk really slowly, as if . . . they . . . have . . . peanut . . . butter . . . in . . . their . . .mouths. If civilization is that close to blowing itself to bits, these are the last people you'd want negotiating a final-hour peace deal.

Written by Motti Lerner and directed by Mahmood Karimi-Hakak, the play ponders important political questions but lacks the sense of urgency needed to make the story believable, or even mildly interesting. Set in Rome, the play portrays a series of clandestine meetings involving three international envoys: an Iranian cleric (Al Faris), an Israeli arms dealer (Ali Pourtash) and an American ambassador (Earll Kingston).

Everyone is self-serving and potentially corrupt. The Israeli acts as a go-between for the U.S. and Iran (which have no formal diplomatic ties), but his real motive is to secure the safety of his sister, who lives in Tehran. Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador tries to persuade the cleric to tacitly support the invasion in exchange for future U.S. support of his bid for the Iranian presidency.

To further complicate matters, each character comes with a back story that clouds his professional judgment. The American ambassador was a captive during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis and can't bring himself to fully trust his Iranian counterpart. The Israeli arms dealer grew up in Iran and went to school with the cleric before the Islamic revolution drove a wedge in their friendship.

"Benedictus" triangulates their competing agendas with intelligence and an almost mathematical efficiency. But it fails to connect the dots in a humanistic way. The characters represent abstract political ideas, not flesh-and-blood creatures.

The play's lugubrious dialogue often sounds like it was copied directly from foreign policy white papers. "World peace is precious to us all," says one character in zombie tones. "The American empire has just taken one more step in the abyss," declares another ominously. Who talks like this?

According to the press notes, "Benedictus" was originally conceived through a collaboration between Israeli, Iranian and American theater artists. (Lerner's final script was written in Hebrew and then translated into English.)

Not surprisingly, the play lacks a strong sense of authorship. Compromise and cooperation are often necessary in politics, but they don't work so well when writing a play.

"Benedictus" concludes intriguingly on an ambiguous note. War still looms on the horizon but peace remains possible, though hardly probable. It's one of the few genuinely heart-stopping moments in a play that otherwise feels like a thesis paper brought to life.

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david.ng@latimes.com

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'Benedictus'

Where: The New LATC, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Dec. 9

Price: $15-$28

Contact: (323) 461-3673 or www.thenewlatc.com

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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