Oriana the Giant Slayer: Fallaci the Rogue Journalist Gets Grilled in a New Play

To Oriana Fallaci, political journalism was a blood sport. The Italian journalist counted as her conquests such lions of the world stage as the Ayatollah Khomeini, Fidel Castro, Muammar Gaddafi, Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, Golda Meir, and Indira Gandhi. She had a particular penchant for gutting despots.

In Lawrence Wright's new play, Fallaci, the playwright imagines a fictional confrontation between the intellectual icon and an up-and-coming writer. It is an interview that is, by turns, a mentor/protégé tête-à-tête, a verbal joust, an investigative probe, a game of cat and mouse and -- at its most contrived -- turn-taking sessions on the psychoanalyst's couch.

It is, of course, an overview of the author and journalist's career, her coups and her contradictions told through theatrical dialogue. And it is, more or less, the dramatized Cliff Notes of Oriana Fallaci.

Concetta Tomei plays Fallaci, a proud journalistic pugilist who speaks of herself in the third person. Fallaci is a strong crusader for truth, justice, and the European way. In later life, this zeal became what many perceived as a staunch, anti-Islamic stance. She wrote that Muslim immigration, aided by liberal tolerance, was turning Europe into Eurabia, a "colony of Islam."

As Fallaci, Tomei gives a dynamic performance. She nearly beats her chest with the roar of righteousness. Tomei excels at capturing Fallaci's provocative rhetoric. With a thick Italian accent and raspy voice, Tomei inhabits the character thoroughly. (Although, she did remind me a bit of Tracey Ulllman playing Arianna Huffington.)

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Marjan Neshat plays the young reporter who visits Fallaci in her home, angling for an interview. Neshat's Miryam appears at first as a wide-eyed, cub reporter, full of awe and admiration for this icon. But during several visits over a span of years, Miryam finds her own inner Fallaci.

This character reflects the playwright's own fascination with Fallaci. Lawrence Wright is also a reporter and author, renowned for his work with The New Yorker. This year he published Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. In 2006 he published The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, a subject that consumed Fallaci herself, after 9/11.

Wright has expressed that the conversation between Miryam and Fallaci manifests the argument he has had in his own mind with his once-hero. Wright, like his alter-ego -- and like many of Fallaci's followers, were alarmed when she published The Rage and the Pride after 9/11. The book has been described as an anti-Muslim, anti-Arab rant, in which the author avows there is no such thing as moderate Islam. She further enraged readers when she railed against Muslim immigrants in Italy, calling them "Terrorists, thieves, rapists. Ex-convicts, prostitutes, beggars. Drug-dealers, contagiously ill."

Director Oskar Eustis, who is the artistic director of New York's acclaimed Public Theater, is to be commended for taking what could have been a dry, staged lecture and giving it the pacing and energy of adroit theatre.

Still, much of the play is the recounting of anecdotes, a greatest hits of Fallaci's headline-making interviews with powerful men. She revels in cutting them down. When she interviewed Khomeini in 1979, she confronted him on the issue of women's oppression and took off the chador she had been obliged to wear.

In a 1972 interview, she coaxed Kissinger to admit that the Vietnam War was useless. She coaxed him into boasting that he was a "cowboy", who was admired for acting alone in his political decisions. Later Kissinger characterized the interview as "the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press."

And in the play, Miriam coaxes Fallaci to confront her own personal agendas, hypocrisies, and the celebrated writer's increasing obsolesce. The turning-tables configuration of Wright's play is fairly predictable. And in his efforts to create drama and develop narrative structure, the story takes on a sentimental tone, with maudlin and cathartic elements. For both women, nerves are touched, family histories are revealed and confronted, personal pain is uncovered. Fallaci was a trailblazing female journalist (would her fierce approach have been so impressive if she was a man?) but the play ultimately reveals that under it all, she was a woman with some pat inner demons.

Fallaci runs through April 21, 2013 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.

All photos by Kevin Berne.

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