The Art of the Combative Interview 

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright takes on fallen journalism hero Oriana Fallaci in this brilliant premiere at Berkeley Rep.

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Easily the best play to hit Berkeley so far this season is not the work of a full-time playwright. Lawrence Wright is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, best known for his investigation of the rise of Al-Qaeda leading up to 9/11. With the masterful Fallaci, now playing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, he uses the theater to take on the peculiar case of Oriana Fallaci, a legendary journalist who by the end of her life would become one of the profession's furthest fallen idols.

Fallaci was at one time perhaps the most revered reporter in the world. Seemingly fearless herself, she leapt headlong into battle zones like Vietnam, Mexico, and Iraq, while bringing some of the world's most powerful leaders ­— Ayatollah Khomeini, Fidel Castro, and Henry Kissinger, to name a few — to their knees with her signature "combative interview" style. A chain smoker possessing a beauty and charm to match her ferocity, she is one of history's great real-life characters.

Fallaci, however, convokes its subject toward the more troubled and troubling end of her life — first in 2000, after a solid decade of silence during which she battled breast cancer, and then in 2003, by which point she had become a vocal Islamophobe, anti-abortion pundit, and otherwise pet of the right.

Wright invents the character of Maryam (Marjan Neshat), a young, Iranian-born New York Times obituary writer, to fulfill the desire of many crestfallen journalists: to probe the disgraced Fallaci — to grill her, really, as she did so many other figures of intolerance, and root out what could make a person of seemingly such integrity transform into the very object of her lifelong loathing.

The first scene, set in 2000, casts Fallaci (Concetta Tomei) and Maryam into a fairly standard teacher-student relationship. Maryam works her way into Fallaci's Manhattan apartment (a gorgeous naturalistic set by Robin Wagner) by posing as a newspaper delivery person, then corners her once-role model into giving an interview. Fallaci is willing to open up, but not until her naive counterpart learns to wield the Fallaci method herself, calling out her subject's flaws and contradictions, pressing on open sores.

The play falters at times during this scene, which largely consists of reliving Fallaci's more famous exploits — for example whipping off her chador head covering during an interview with Khomeini, inducing him to eject himself from the room — and exposing her more infamous tendencies, namely to self-contradict and run fast and loose with facts. The interview mechanism eventually wears thin, and with Neshat giving a slightly over-animated performance of an as-yet-stocky character, the whole thing threatens to resolve into a trite mentorship tale of the The Devil Wears Prada variety.

What the first scene leaves to be desired, however, the second scene makes up for in thrilling quantity. Taking place three years later, by which point Maryan has become an accomplished journalist as well as an self-identified Muslim and Fallaci a reactionary hate-monger, the scene quickly escalates to psychological carnage, plain and simple. This is Wright's opportunity to conjecture about the fears and demons that apparently rotted away Fallaci's integrity near the end of her life. His talent as a journalist is plainly manifest here. Speaking through Maryan, the issues he exhumes are too real to be made up; indeed, they are the result of deep research and interviews of Fallaci's friends. The Fallaci character returns the favor like an old pro, pouncing on the guise of Maryan's newfound religious identity and lugging out the closeted family skeletons that undergird it. By the end of this gripping, pathos-filled tête-à-tête, Fallaci has been diminished to a state of profane frailty and Maryan has, against all odds, taken the center stage as a character as admirable as she is disturbing.

Some viewers may likely take issue with the epilogue-style third scene, in which the naturalistic set pulls away, marooning the two characters in a black, misty new dimension as Fallaci, now robed in white silk, evanesces while Maryan, changed into black traditional garb complete with a head covering, discusses a transformation of her own. What might have been hokey turns out to be anything but, as Wright keeps the intensity cranked higher than ever, delving into subjects of rape, abortion, mortality, confinement, and freedom as the play's charged farewell. This risky apotheosis is a success: The play, having completely exceeded itself as a bio piece, is much too big to end on a couch.

From its absorbing set design to its evolving costumes (by Jess Goldstein) to its pronounced quirks (for example, the visible set runners, who, functioning partially in a narrative capacity and partially in a mechanical one, turn out to be a silently chilling component), Fallaci is one of the most uniformly excellent productions in recent memory. Wright's script makes for an unforgettable obituary and introduces a vivid foil who ultimately becomes something more. In showing what an injection of good journalism can do for theater, Fallaci lights an exciting new avenue for the dramatic art.

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