It’s no wonder journalist-playwright Lawrence Wright was drawn to Italian superstar author-reporter Oriana Fallaci as the subject for “Fallaci,” his two-character drama receiving its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre under the assured direction of Public Theatre artistic director Oskar Eustis.
Fallaci, who died in 2006, was tough, resilient and seemingly fearless. She interviewed movie stars and, most famously, significant figures of the 20th century: the Ayatollah Khomeini, Yasser Arafat, Henry Kissinger and many more, drawing responses from them that her colleagues could only dream of obtaining.
An atheist who was rude, confrontational and crafty in the face of power, even downright brutal, she was beloved by leftists worldwide. But after 9/11, when she proclaimed herself to be anti-Islam, she suddenly became the darling of the right wing. (She was also apparently against abortion.)
To explore the beliefs, behavior and bons mots of such a celebrated, complex and contradictory character, Wright invented an adoring young acolyte, Maryam, a 25-year-old Iranian-American obit writer for The New York Times.
Maryam tricks her way into the reclusive Fallaci’s shabby-chic, book-laden apartment (beautifully rendered by set designer Robin Wagner) to interview her. Fallaci has been holed up there for years, fighting cancer.
At first reluctant to be interviewed, Fallaci can’t resist coaching the younger woman in interview techniques, then, inevitably, telling stories of her escapades.
A formidable intellect who refers to herself grandly in the third person, Fallaci eventually opens her heart (so too does Maryam), and by play’s end has revealed some significant, long-held secrets.
But there’s an imbalance inherent in Wright’s dramatic concept. In laying out a series of provocative arguments and wrenching personal confessions between two characters, one real and the other fictional, the play feels half-contrived.
The chain-smoking Fallaci — a husky-voiced Concetta Tomei with a melodic Italian accent — is simply much more interesting than Maryam.
It doesn’t help that Marjan Neshat’s performance as Maryam is not as powerful as Tomei’s. In the second (post-9/11) scene, in which the angry protege returns after three years to confront the woman she once so admired, Neshat seems pallid in the face of Tomei’s verve.
But when the self-aggrandizing, ultimately vulnerable Fallaci is holding forth, whether you agree with her opinions or not — and whether or not you perceive her political arguments in a new light — her personality and wit are pure
Fallaci: Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre