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Glenda Frank

"Betrayed" by George Packer. Directed by Pippin Parker.
At the Culture Project, 55 Mercer St., NYC.
Jan. 25 - April 13, 2008.
Mon., Tues.-Sat. at 8 PM, Sat. and Sun. at 3 PM. Tickets: $25-60.00.
(212) 352-3101 or www.cultureproject.org.

An old Chinese proverb warns that when you walk on the tiger's tail, you must tread lightly. It is a lesson the three idealistic Iraqis in George Packer's provocative play "Betrayed" learn day by day as they return home to the war zone from their jobs as translators for the American army. They don't all survive. Prescott (Mike Doyle), their American supervisor, is the play's voice of indignation, and we join him in wishing that these bright young people – the hope of their nation – survive and move on to bigger and better lives. They are the drama, but the larger lesson of the play is our good-natured but deadly delusions about the country and our ambivalent moral responsibility.

George Packer, author of "Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq" (2005) and a staff writer for the New Yorker, drew international attention to the plight of Iraqi interpreters employed by America with a 2007 article. The article and the ensuing play, his first, were based on onsite interviews in Baghdad. Packer calls "Betrayed" political "in the largest sense," a drama about the shifting of power and the individuals who are trapped by other people's decisions. "When America prepares, inevitably, to leave," he asks in his article, "what can we do to limit the damage that will follow our departure, not just for Iraq's sake but for our own?"

Parker has a natural gift for drama. His characters and their problems come frighteningly to life. The play is deeply affecting -- in part because the characters find both humor and outrage as they struggle to cope with their situation. We meet them when their infatuation for all things American and British is in full bloom. Adnan (Waleed F. Zuaiter), a Sunni, has graduated from the university but can only find work as a street bookseller. He is waiting, sure the time will come when his passion can become his profession. Intisar (Aadya Bedi) fell in love with Emily Bronte and all things British. She refuses to wear a hijab (scarf) and longs to ride a bicycle through the streets like her brothers – an act forbidden a woman. Laith (Sevan Greene), a Shia, learned English by listening to Metallica and is obsessed with rock. To them America means culture, high and low, but they sign on with the bureaucracy, and they soon learn the different when they are threatened by their neighbors.

Their jobs as translators have many perks, not the least of which is discovering each other and forming a strong friendship, but it has a dangerous downside. Each morning they must line up in plain view to be admitted through the security check points for the Green Zone because they don't have high clearance. They feel continual pressure from the community. Their every move is suspect – from the ties and suits they wear to their taking their American boss on a forbidden outing to a local restaurant. Prescott thinks the solution is simple, higher clearance, but he hits a stone wall. The head of security (Jeremy Beck) suspects all Iraqi employees of being terrorist plants. He will not protect these three despite the substantiated threats to their lives.
The play is filled with unexpected characters and moments. A soldier on duty (Jeremy Beck) gets excited about meeting Laith when the Iraqi sings him some rock lyrics and hires him as a translator on the spot. Laith and Adnan agree to meet in a bombed-out hotel, and we hear about their long (days) and dangerous path to go just a few blocks during the fighting. They joke, they argue, they reach out with their cells phones to friends. You can almost smell the smoke, it seems so real.

The cast under the direction of Pippin Parker tread lightly but surefooted through the moments of hope, laughter, bewilderment, and panic. They give uniformly strong performances, and are comfortable with the bilingual script. Since its inception in 1996, Culture Project has been bringing cutting edge political issues to audiences through high quality dramas. They have been a call to conscience. "Betrayed" is one of its finest productions.

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