leanor Foa Dienstag

Asymmetric: A Morality Tale Wrapped in a Spy Thriller

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If you love Homeland, then you will love Asymmetric. In this play, we are plunked down in the midst of a fast-paced drama about four CIA spymasters – set a year in the future — and struggle to figure out who these people are and what is going on.

The play’s main character (hero?), Josh, a disheveled man in his mid-fifties, once a “legendary interrogator,” is also trying to figure out what is going on. It takes him – and us — a while to comprehend that he has been brought back to The Fifth Floor (a bit of CIA real estate he created and oversaw) to help his former underling, Zack, solve the mystery of who is selling classified intelligence to the enemy.

Zack reminds his former boss – but really us, the audience – that asymmetric warfare, which is warfare between belligerents whose relative military power differs significantly, “favors the bad guys as often as it favors us.” Why? Because we, the so-called civilized ones, are supposed to care about the niceties of collateral damage, including “civilians,” whereas the terrorist bad-guys, as 9/11 proved, don’t care. Their rules and ours are different. But, wait, are they?

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The twists and turns of the plot are fairly bewildering, although the broad outline of the story is not. As the play progresses, we understand that we are in the midst of a morality tale wrapped in a spy thriller. The author, Mac Rogers, pulls back the spy curtain and shows us, yet again, how cruel, sadistic and yet, oddly idealistic these CIA characters – and the government they represent — really are. It’s ugly in the trenches and that takes its toll on each of the play’s four characters in different ways.

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The cast consists of seasoned professionals: each of the four actors is terrific. Josh, played by Sean Williams, is absolutely convincing as a washed-up alcoholic ex-spy. Zach, played by Seth Shelden, deftly inhabits the role of insecure bureaucrat. Kate Middleton is compelling as the perfectly named Sunny Black, in the complex role of CIA operative and former wife of Josh. And the sadistic torturer, Ford, is so fully inhabited by Rob Maitner that I wouldn’t want to be left alone in a room with him.

The set couldn’t be simpler in this intimate theater: a table and chairs, a photo of Obama and his CIA Director on the wall, plus some file boxes and a briefcase or two. Yet, it’s to everyone’s credit that for an hour and 20 minutes – without intermission — we are totally absorbed and, till the last moment, on the edge of our seats.

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The play takes shots at the liberal left, including Clinton and Obama. And Josh is derided as “the Clintons’ pet super-sleuth.” In a particularly blistering monologue Ford says to Josh, “You were a liberal administration’s indulgent afterthought. I loved watching you go down. Everyone else grew the fuck up when the world flipped to the B-side. You’re the only one who spent the next decade-plus losing his mind a glass at a time. The rest of us just fucking adapted because that’s what actual patriots do.”

The whole issue of “what actual patriots do,” is at the heart of this drama, and though it’s a familiar theme that stretches from All Quiet on the Western Front and Casablanca to Homeland and beyond, it’s well worth thinking about. The twists and turns of the plot serve to keep us guessing to the very end what the characters will do, which is, of course, what first-rate thrillers do.

Without giving away too much, let me simply say that E.M. Foster’s famous line — “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” – is deeply relevant to Asymmetric.

For those who like political morality tales, as I definitely do, Asymmetric — in a limited run — is the play for you.

Photos by Travis McHale:
1. L-R: Kate Middleton, Sean Williams and Seth Shelden
2. Sean Williams
3. L-R: Seth Shelden and Rob Maitner
4. L-R: Kate Middleton and Sean Williams

Asymmetric
by Mac Rogers
Directed by Jordana Williams
59E59 Theaters
212 279-4200
Produced by Ground Up Productions
November 14- December 6, 2014

 



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E-mail at efoa@usa.net