Arena’s ‘Camp David’ tries to turn the grind of diplomacy into the stuff of drama


Khaled Muhammad El Nabawy, Ron Rifkin, Richard Thomas, and Hallie Foote photographed at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 20. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

When practiced deftly, diplomacy is likened to an art. But can it also be an entertainment?

The question is being taken up at the moment at Arena Stage, where a journalist-playwright and a quartet of veteran actors are hard at work, extracting every ounce of drama they can out of the 13 historic days of argument and gamesmanship 36 years ago in the Maryland countryside that resulted, breathtakingly, in a peace treaty between the most intransigent of Middle East enemies.

“Camp David” is the 90-minute play that the New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright has composed from the events at the presidential retreat in September 1978, when President Jimmy Carter hosted the leaders of Egypt and Israel, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, and beseeched them to remain until they hammered out the accords. Based in part on the private journals of Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, as well as on interviews with others at the talks, the play —which begins preview performances at Arena’s Kreeger Theater on Friday — has as its focus the peculiar psychodynamics among the three leaders that made possible a troubled part of the world’s most durable peace.

The characters of “Camp David” are in fact, exclusively the story’s big fish: Richard Thomas portrays Carter, Ron Rifkin plays Begin and as Sadat, director Molly Smith cast Egyptian movie actor Khaled Nabawy. As he pondered the play’s structure, Wright came to the conclusion that he “needed Rosalynn,” too, not only because she was the president’s sounding board but also because the play called for another leavening presence. She’s inhabited here by Hallie Foote, daughter of the late Pulitzer-winning playwright Horton Foote.

“It occurred to me you could tell a lot about the problems of that region through these characters,” Wright said one afternoon last month in Arena’s Southwest Washington complex, as rehearsals were getting underway. “All my work is based to some extent on reality. And that always leads to surprises you couldn’t have cooked up on your own.”

The project, for which the writer was recruited by longtime Carter aide and confidant Gerald Rafshoon — who first had the idea of turning the 13 days at Camp David into a play — is a natural extension of Wright’s other interests and experiences. In 2007, Wright himself appeared on the stage of the Kennedy Center in “My Trip to Al-Qaeda,” his one-man show based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.” (His latest book, “Going Clear,” is an exhaustive examination of the Church of Scientology.) So the potential of theater as a tool of nonfiction has long been apparent to him. And just as his al-Qaeda book became a play, his new play is destined to be a book, based on the research he’s done for “Camp David,” which included time he spent in Plains, Ga., with the Carters.

What Arena audiences are waiting to discover with “Camp David” — a Washington play if ever there was one — is whether Wright and company have found the incisive hook that can mine history for some irresistible histrionics. Plays on geopolitical topics tend to be a hard sell. “A Walk in the Woods,” Lee Blessing’s 1988 Broadway play about candid talk between Soviet and American arms negotiators, was dismissed by New York Times critic Frank Rich as “the aesthetic equivalent of Switzerland” and closed after a few months. And while Michael Frayn’s “Democracy,” a study of West German nation-building and the leadership of Willy Brandt, was a London hit, it failed to connect with Broadway audiences when it was produced there in 2004.

Rafshoon, who first served Carter as the adman in his gubernatorial campaigns and became his communications director in the White House, remains a close friend of the former president. Over a long ensuing career as a television and film producer, he pondered the potential of a film about Camp David, “when an Orthodox Jew and a Muslim and a born-again Christian go behind closed gates and come back with the only treaty that has stood the test of time in the Middle East.” But Hollywood never shared his enthusiasm. Then, in 2007, along came “Frost/Nixon,” Peter Morgan’s Broadway bio-drama depicting British TV personality David Frost in his interviews with disgraced former president Richard Nixon. Observing its runaway success, Rafshoon recalled, “I thought, ‘I should do a play.’ ”

It was via Rocco Landesman, the Broadway producer who was chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts during President Obama’s first term, that Rafshoon was introduced to Wright. Through Landesman, too, the project was brought to Arena’s Smith, who was immediately intrigued. “It’s the three peacemakers and the woman who makes peace between them,” she said. “I didn’t want the wax-museum version. I wanted the blood and guts of what happened.”

Rafshoon gave Wright — who had lived and reported from Cairo — instant entrée. They traveled together to Israel and Egypt, meeting with surviving members of the entourages of Prime Minister Begin, founder of the Likud party, who died in 1992, and of President Sadat, assassinated only three years after the treaty’s signing. They also traveled to Plains, where Rosalynn surprised him by sharing with him her personal diary.

Describing Carter as “a very intelligent and relentless person” and his wife as “his sober adviser,” Wright said the president dived into the Camp David talks — convened, according to Rafshoon, in spite of the trepidations of some of those around him — with an overly optimistic view of his own powers of persuasion.

“Jimmy came into this with the mistaken idea that he could put them in a room together and make them fall in love.” Wright said. “I think Carter was flummoxed when they got so angry at each other.”

The play documents the rocky course of the talks, which for the two Middle East leaders seem to have become a channel for their bitter grievances, wily rhetorical skills and anguished memories. It portrays Carter as almost recklessly invested in breaking down their defenses and, as the negotiations rolled on, a go-between of tireless resourcefulness. One of the script’s funnier interludes reveals Carter on a golf cart, wordlessly shuttling back and forth across the stage between the leaders’ quarters. Rosalynn Carter is portrayed, too, as intuitively sharp, turning up at moments of explosive tenseness with civilizing servings of tea.

Wright asserts that at no point was he encouraged by Rafshoon or the Carters to color the portraits; “Camp David” is the product of his own research. Rafshoon says that the Carters have not even read the play, although they are honorary chairmen for the gala opening night of “Camp David” on April 3.

Knowing their work would be attended by the extra degree of scrutiny applied to portrayals of figures from recent history, the actors say they entered the project with some extra measure of wariness — and also, with the burden, if you will, of their own ideas of who these people are. “I think he had a very hard time as president,” said Thomas, a veteran of stage and television who has a role as an FBI official in the FX series “The Americans.” “I think he’s a brilliant man, a very smart man, but I think he truly was an outsider. It worked like gangbusters to get him into office and it worked against him when he was there.”

Thomas said he is aware of the inherent difficulties in dramatizing history — “Shakespeare was smart; his history plays are all about families” — and so “I approached it with caution. And then I read it and I saw he had turned it into theater. He took the kinds of liberties a playwright should take.”

From his home base in Cairo, Nabawy was intrigued but wary, too, at the idea of playing Sadat, a polarizing figure in modern Egyptian history. “You can say the people are divided on the matter,” Nabawy explained in his exuberant fashion. “First, I asked to read the script. I don’t put assumptions. I read it, and I loved it. I’m not a president and now I have to be a president. I want to bring his spirit, which is a huge challenge.”

Foote, echoing her castmates, said, “I’m not going to do a dead-on impression.” She was looking, however, for connections in Wright’s conjuring of the former first lady to women she knew, and in that process was finding her way. “My grandmother was a lot like Rosalynn,” the actress said. “Women who were not just pushed into the background.”

Perhaps, though, it was Rifkin who was the most profoundly affected by wading into the play. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, the actor, familiar from a multitude of stage and TV roles, said that despite his background, Israel “is not a place I think about that much.” And yet, he observed, “The play has undone me. It has brought up so many feelings that are deeply rooted under my soul. Those 13 days. I’m undone by the heart and power and will and strength and the dreams they all had.”

Camp David

by Lawrence Wright. Directed by Molly Smith. March 21-May 4 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets, $75-$120. Visit arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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