Left Behind 

Iraqi translators and Beirut hostages hung out to dry.

The name really says it all. Betrayed, a play adapted by journalist George Packer from his own 2007 New Yorker article by the same name, follows Iraqi interpreters whose work for the American forces has made them a target for various groups, while the Americans do nothing to protect them.

Even if you haven't read the article but know vaguely what it's about, there are no real surprises in the narrative, because it doesn't tell a story so much as a situation. The details are mostly true, cobbled together from one actual incident or another and then embodied in hybrid characters based on the interpreters and Americans Packer interviewed.

One would hope that embodying various Iraqis' stories into specific characters would make the general situation more immediate and personal, but it has the opposite effect. The characters are so transparently symbolic that they make actual people's stories seem generic.

Told in flashback in many short scenes, Packer's script is often overly transparent, as in a getting-to-know-you scene of interpreters bonding over their love of Emily Bronte and James Carville. But it also has its resonant moments, such as when the security officer explains that the dreaded red zone is anywhere outside of the green zone. Ibrahim's Intisar responds incredulously, "You mean ... Iraq?"

The main point of watching Robin Stanton's crisply directly Aurora Theatre Company West Coast premiere, rather than simply reading Packer's article on the New Yorker web site, is powerful performances such as that of Denmo Ibrahim as a formidable, outspoken female translator whose refusal to cover her hair makes her doubly a target. Alex Moggridge deftly depicts a diplomatic bureaucrat's slide from blithe optimism to shattering disillusionment, and James Wagner is appropriately infuriating as the officious security officer and maddeningly oblivious as a yahoo soldier.

Amir Sharafeh has a haunted and hunted look nearly etched on his face as a Shiite translator. Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari is overly mannered as his Sunni colleague, with sad eyebrows raised for maximum poignancy. Keith Burkland has a stiff walk-on part as the American ambassador, and Khalid Shayota pops up effectively as various angry Iraqis.

Eric E. Sinkkonen's set drives the show's symbolism home with crumbling stone walls over a floor painted with a map of Baghdad, and Callie Floor injects a note of naturalism with button-down casual street clothes. Chris Guptill's lights are long on moody shadows, and sound designer Chris Houston creates a mood beautifully with tender acoustic Middle Eastern music between scenes.

Playing over at Diablo Actors Ensemble in Walnut Creek, Frank McGuinness' 1992 drama Someone to Watch Over Me sounds as if it might hold some promise of thorny geopolitical issues, as it's about an American, an Irishman, and an Englishman being held in a Beirut prison for reasons unknown. It should at least be topical, given that the United States has been keeping foreigners imprisoned without charges for seven years now.

It's quickly evident, however, that the setting is a red herring. We never learn anything about the trio's unseen captors or why this is happening. It's hardly even about the three men themselves. There's no shortage of monologues about their families and daddy issues, but for the audience as for the prisoners, it's just a way of passing the time.

When a TV show runs low on ideas or budget, it will often trap two or three characters in an elevator or a broom closet or a shuttlecraft and just let anxiety take its course. McGuinness' play, which was performed by Berkeley's Wilde Irish Productions in 2005, feels like just another elevator episode.

The acting is perfectly respectable in Clive Worsley's straightforward staging. Vince Faso's American Adam is a bundle of nerves, and Joel Roster's jolly Irishman mostly manages not to get on those nerves. Dennis Markham is particularly affecting as Michael the hapless medieval English literature scholar, even if his restrained British mannerisms are more than a little reminiscent of Hugh Grant.

There's a surprising lack of suspense, considering that as far as we know they could be executed at any moment. Instead, it's nearly as tedious watching the characters pass the time as it must be for them, enlivened by the occasional fight or true confession and many, many games.

The prisoners pretend to pour each other drinks, recite letters to their families, have flights of fantasy on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and direct each other in imaginary movies. It's all very cute, but the joshing around comes off as awfully forced. Ultimately, without any sense of why these guys are here, it forces the question: Why should you be there watching them?


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