‘The Ally’ Off Broadway Review: The Israel-Palestine Debate Leaves Josh Radnor Reeling

The “How I Met Your Mother” star sustains blow after blow in Itamar Moses’ great new play

Josh Radnor in the world premiere production of "The Ally"
Josh Radnor in the world premiere production of "The Ally" (Credit: Joan Marcus)

Last year, Off Broadway gave us three great new plays: Eboni Booth’s “Primary Trust,” Brandon Jacob-Jenkins’ “The Comeuppance” and David Adjmi’s “Stereophonic,” to open on Broadway in April.

Now, just two months into the New Year, the city’s theater delivers another instant classic. It’s Itamar Moses’ “The Ally,” which had its world premiere Tuesday at the Public Theater. We always hear a lot about the Golden Age, which is always sometime many years, if not decades, in the past. Hello, theatergoers! We’re living in a golden age of great new American plays, and even a pandemic couldn’t stop it.

Granted, there’s something more than a little daunting about entering a theater and being told by the friendly usher that the play you’re about to see is just under three hours with an intermission. That said, only five minutes into “The Ally” and it’s obvious you’re in the capable hands of a magnificent storyteller, a writer on the level of George Bernard Shaw.

Anyone who knows what “The Ally” is about may be appalled by that comparison of Moses and Shaw, because the latter was an avowed antisemite who disparaged the characterization of Jews as a chosen nation as “a monstrous presumption.”

Which is a good place to start writing about the incendiary tale that “The Ally” tells. In Moses’ play, Asaf, a Jewish college instructor (Josh Radnor), has been asked by a Black student (Elijah Jones) to sign a petition protesting the murder of a young Black man by the campus police. The petition is a protest effort led by Asaf ’s old girlfriend (Cherise Boothe), whom he hasn’t seen in 20 years. To make things even messier, the written appeal contains a few controversial things to say about the state of Israel, linking its treatment of Palestinians to America’s treatment of people of color.

Asaf wonders why the petition singles out Israel and not other countries (China, India, Russia, Turkey) that have a history of discrimination against minorities living within and just beyond their borders. He signs it anyway, and supports efforts by a Jewish-Palestinian student alliance (Michael Khalid Karadsheh and Madeline Weinstein) on campus to sponsor a speaker who has been critical of Israel. The fallout from one Jewish colleague (Ben Rosenfield) is immediate.

The above synopsis does not begin to feature all the controversies Moses has packed into his play. This playwright’s sheer knowledge of the world’s history for the past century (make that the past few millennia) is nothing short of astounding. There’s also the little matter of Asaf’s wife (Joy Osmanski), who works for the college to lead its expansion into an adjacent low-income neighborhood (think Columbia University moving into Harlem back in the 1960s) — and even much messier, she knows next to nothing about her husband’s old girlfriend.

Moses sets up Asaf as a human punching bag, and much like Shaw does in all his plays, the character gets hit from all sides. As he dodges one blow after another, we find our sympathies and allegiances constantly shifting. The debates are as dense as they are fascinating — and better yet, Moses laces them with scathing humor.

There’s a delayed split-second timing to the delivery of these zingers, obeyed by all the actors, that suggests they have been led by a very talented director, Lila Neugebauer. She also brings an amazing fluidity to the stage, with one scene getting a head start even before the one we’re watching has finished.

Asaf could come off as a real wimp. While Radnor gives more than a few nebbish dimensions to the character, he manages to make Asaf extraordinarily compelling in the way he gets floored repeatedly but keeps coming back for more. His journey is empathetic to the point of heartbreaking.

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