Though a new “fictionalized” play at Arena Stage portrays two ripped-from-the-headlines figures, Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson, in one of the great intelligence debacles in U.S. history, it’s a made-up character who comes across most compellingly as flesh-and-blood.
That would be one Dr. Malik Nazari, whom playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton dreams up in “Intelligence” as a former chemical-weapons expert from Iraq, determined to do the right thing in the aftermath of 9/11 and the run-up to the American invasion of his country. As played with earnest intensity by Ethan Hova, Dr. Nazari is an idealistic exile persuaded by CIA agent Plame (played by Hannah Yelland) to return to Iraq to learn whether Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction exist.
Audiences in Arena’s Cradle theater are well aware that the WMDs over which President George W. Bush and his proxies sounded alarm bells turned out to be a mirage. In the curiously static “Intelligence,” the dramatist painstakingly prosecutes the notion that valiant souls such as her Dr. Nazari were sacrificed to a now-discredited rationale for war and all of the attendant suffering.
That “Intelligence” seeks with the dignified stoicism of Greek drama to recount some key American policy failures — and also the betrayal of Plame by her employers — is a mark in its favor. Still, the 90-minute piece never develops any galvanizing momentum or a thesis that helps us understand what about the Plame affair requires this particular treatment. As a result, “Intelligence” proves of little more use in learning about the case than consulting Wikipedia.
Directed in its world premiere by Daniella Topol, the play trains a lot of its focus on the strains the WMD controversy puts on Plame’s marriage to Wilson, a Foreign Service officer and ambassador who may be best known for his 2002 CIA fact-finding mission to the African nation of Niger that cast doubt on the administration’s assertions about Hussein’s weapons arsenal. Wilson’s mandate was to investigate claims that Hussein was buying uranium yellowcake for military purposes, but he found no evidence that the sales occurred. A year and a half later, in a bombshell op-ed piece for the New York Times, Wilson revealed himself to have been the investigator and concluded that “some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.”
Lawton’s play retraces these real events, including the career-ending disclosure of Plame’s identity in a July 2003 column by Robert Novak in The Washington Post. But the scenes between Plame and Lawrence Redmond’s Wilson feel as if they’re mere topical boilerplate, and neither Yelland nor Redmond — both highly skilled performers — find much here to inspire them. The performances feel less engaging than clinical. (There seem to have been some minor technical problems on the night I attended, which could have posed some distraction for the actors.)
Topol has more success with the physical elements of the production. Misha Kachman’s set — dominated by three movable concrete pillars onto which designer Jared Mezzocchi projects videos of Washington talking heads and battle scenes from the front — assists in the impression of a heavy-duty tragedy unfolding before us.
Faring best here, though, are actors Hova and Nora Achrati, the latter as a Georgetown dress-shop owner and Nazari’s niece, who is pressured by Plame to provide access to her uncle. As the scenes advance, one is struck by the more intriguing dramatic possibilities of a play centered around two Iraqis who’ve escaped their devastated country — and against their wills are drawn inexorably back into their nation’s tragedy by agents of the CIA. Ah, well.
Intelligence, by Jacqueline E. Lawton, directed by Daniella Topol. Set, Misha Kachman; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Kathy A. Perkins; original music and sound, Jane Shaw; projections, Jared Mezzocchi; dialects, Leigh Wilson Smiley. With Aakhu TuahNera Freeman. About 90 minutes. Tickets: $40-$90. Through April 9 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300.