Ari Roth’s new play, “My Calamitous Affair With the Minister of Culture and Censorship or Death of the Dialogic in the American Theater,” imagines thespians rehearsing a script that has 58 footnotes. This world premiere from Voices Festival Productions feels like a footnote itself, despite its important themes, humor and dynamic performances. A long-winded drama à clef, “Calamitous Affair” is more cerebral than emotional, and like an exhaustive footnote, it speaks to a narrow audience.
The cerebral quality is surprising, given that “Calamitous Affair” depicts a seismic clash among theater people who feel passionately about their artistic and political values. It’s a clash evidently based on events related to Roth’s 2020 departure from Mosaic Theater Company, an organization he founded after being fired from Theater J in 2014. He started Voices Festival Productions this year.
In “Calamitous Affair,” directed by John Vreeke and part of the Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival, the Roth stand-in is called AD (Founding Artistic Director Until Recently), and he’s channeled by Karl Kippola with an apt disheveled-professor air. For the theater that he heads, AD (who is Jewish) adapts a documentary play about thespians facing censorship and vitriol in Israel. His choices for the adaptation, titled “Humiliation 2.0,” so outrage his collaborators that the script requires controversy-tracking footnotes. (Echoes of Mosaic’s 2019 workshop production “Shame 2.0” are strong.)
His collaborators include an Israeli playwright, Eilat Herzog (the charismatic Anat Cogan), and a Palestinian actor, Samad Hussein (Hassan Nazari-Robati, exuding spot-on moodiness and fervor). AD’s colleague Virginia B. Lawrence (a magnetic Ilasiea Gray) strives to calm tempers, but that’s tough when AD has written into “Humiliation 2.0” a right-wing-firebrand based on a real Israeli minister of culture (a radiantly brash Lisa Hodsoll). As the minister character, Miri Rekev, stalks around in a blue pantsuit, haranguing exuberantly, the meta-theater can be sharp.
“Calamitous Affair” also asks significant questions related to art, politics and inclusion. Among them: Is bearing forceful political witness incompatible with good theater, which arguably has, at its core, a push-and-pull between wills and viewpoints? Eye-catching at the back of the largely bare stage, Devin Kinch’s projections — words such as “restorative justice” and “protected speech” and video seemingly of protests and security forces in Israel — add philosophical and geopolitical context.
Yet the play lacks emotional pull. Anger, disappointment and, yes, humiliation do figure in the story, judging by scenes of narration and heated debate, but an overall ironic detachment keeps us from feeling those emotions’ grip on the characters. Adding to the distancing effect are a diffuse narrative focus (including on play-development nitty-gritty) and the relatively dispassionate portrait of AD, even when he’s relating family tragedy.
The most moving moment sees Virginia suddenly losing her cool, showing us the anguish that evidently underlies her generally upbeat manner. “When you don’t see another’s suffering, and see only your own, it is violence,” she cries. “… Stop the violence!”
At other times, with its insider details and hints of self-justification, “Calamitous Affair” may principally appeal to those curious about Roth’s departure from Mosaic. One longs for this play to be more than explanatory.
My Calamitous Affair With the Minister of Culture and Censorship or Death of the Dialogic in the American Theater, by Ari Roth. Directed by John Vreeke; lighting designer, Devin Kinch; costumes, Anna Marquardt; properties, Elizabeth Long; sound, Alistair Edwards. About 2½ hours. Through Oct. 23 at the Corner at Whitman-Walker, 1701 14th St. NW. voicesfestivalproductions.com.