Once again Molly Smith’s prescience is almost unsettling. At a time when spying, wiretapping, election tampering, and international espionage are at the forefront of the minds and broadcasts of America, Smith reminds us that history repeats itself. Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s production of Intelligence fictionalizes the real-life political scandal of CIA covert operative Valerie Plame’s public ouster by journalist Robert Novak, allegedly at the behest of George W. Bush administration officials in reprisal for her husband’s challenge of the government’s position on WMDs. Jacqueline E. Lawton’s script is concise and balances the real world facts of Plamegate with the evergreen nature how quickly national trust can be breached in jaws of the power hungry government machine.
Director Daniella Topol’s production is fluid and tightly passed. Set Designer Misha Kachman captures the constantly shifting nature of intelligence with a stage comprised of sliding concrete pillars and wheeled set pieces in perpetual motion. Jane Shaw mixes some original compositions into her musical score, reiterating the ever-present perennial nature of the subject matter. As Valerie Plame, Hannah Yelland is luminescent. Commendations must go to Lighting Designer Kathy Perkins. She spotlights Yelland’s platinum crown to capture your eye and make it impossible to look away, despite constant set machinations and the occasional head scarf. Piercing the fiction, Projection Designer Jared Mezzocchi’s footage of post-9/11 era television is a splash of cold water in the unforgiving light of hindsight.
The most compelling part of the play is watching Plame manage her “assests.” How the agent entangles Dr. Malik Nazari (Ethan Hova) through his dressmaker niece Leyla (Nora Achrati) is breathtaking in its inexorable machination. Plame’s attitude toward the two is both human and calculating, Geppetto the master loving the pawn. Yet Geppetto can no better protect his puppet from the jaws of Monstro than Plame can shield Nazari, or herself. Ultimately, they all end up in the belly of the whale. The raw edges and uncertainty of immigrants Hova and Achrati perfectly foil the glib and urbane insider-DC power couple presented by Yelland and Lawrence Redmond, portraying her polished diplomat husband Joseph Wilson. The play would feel less fulsome without an essential non-American, non-white perspective to American bias, 9/11, and the war on terror.
The problem with Intelligence was that it lacked, well, intelligence. There was a real opportunity here to add more value to a familiar story. Give me more of the power dynamics in the Wilson-Plame marriage. Domestic scenes were too scripted and fell short. Show me the effect of motherhood on super secret spy stuff. Literally, I want to know how you manage to be an international covert operative with twin toddlers. It didn’t. While Lawton threads tension over the WMD controversy, and slavish devotion to the government party-line, into the marital bed, it doesn’t feel authentic.
Ultimately, the production is polished and the emotions heartfelt. While it may fall short in complexity, it hits the mark in topicality. The subject is important, and should serve as a reminder that the past isn’t.
Intelligence is playing at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater from through April 9, 2017 (1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington DC 20024). Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. For information or tickets call 202-488-3300 or click here.
Photos credit C. Stanley Photography