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Play Examines the Human Cost of Empty Promises
By Simone Stevens
George Packer is a novelist and journalist with a savvy political eye. Through his column in The New Yorker, various essays, and his most recent book, “The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq,” the writer has unleashed his own brand of fierce criticism of the war and its tragic consequences. His most recent protest comes in the form of an off Broadway production called “Betrayed,” which marks Packer’s first foray into playwriting.
Adapted from an earlier published article of the same name, “Betrayed” focuses on the experiences of three Iraqi translators working for the U.S. Intoxicated by the promise of a new Iraq, the translators – two men and one woman – go about their duties with unwavering dedication, until violent protest to the occupation begins erupting all over the country. Suddenly threatened for having aligned themselves with the wrong side, the translators request political asylum from the U.S., which they are repeatedly denied. Feeling abandoned by an administration they had risked their lives to help, one of the men says, “I fell in between heaven and hell. The Americans didn’t want me, and the Iraqis didn’t want me. Where will I go? …I am – how do you say – hung out to dry.”
By focusing on the lives of ordinary Iraqis, the play offers a refreshing alternative to the sterility of statistics and economic obsessions that all too often characterize American journalism on the war. In “Betrayed,” it is the human toll that counts, and much of the dialogue is taken from actual interviews with Iraqi citizens. Packer is quoted in The New York Times as saying, “I wanted to do something with the material I had, that I didn’t think journalism could do, which was to go deeper into the experience of the Iraqis themselves.”
At this point, the American public does not need to be convinced that the war was a mistake, but it may, nevertheless, require reprogramming on the subject of war in general. Art offers such a possibility. “Betrayed” combats the media objectification of Iraq’s citizens by reminding the viewer that they are not ideas, but human beings. And public empathy and indignation may just be the best deterrents against future “pre-emptive” military operations. Of his experience seeing “Betrayed,” New York Times writer Adam Feldman comments, “One leaves sharing the translators’ frustration at the supposed saviors who brought freedom’s door to Iraq and then guarded it against entry.”
“Betrayed” opened off Broadway in February 2008 and garnered attention for its novel yet relevant subject matter. Pippin Parker’s lean direction and talented cast (including Waleed F. Zuaitar, Sevan Greene and Aadya Bedi) have been applauded by several distinguished critics, and the production won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play. Calling the set and design “sparse and devoid of any distinct creative flair,” The New York Times suggested that the ambience was supplied mainly by the actors and Packer’s powerful script. Due to positive reception, "Betrayed"'s run was extended through June 16th.