If you haven't yet felt pity for Secretary of State John Kerry, you will after seeing "Camp David," the new play by Lawrence Wright at Arena Stage about the most famous attempt to broker peace in the Middle East.
Every issue that has frustrated Kerry lately in his heroic bid to get the parties moving toward a solution -- settlements, Palestinian rights, etc. -- dogged President Jimmy Carter when he enticed President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Camp David in September 1978 to hash out some sort of agreement. The effort took every tense minute of 13 days.
The Camp David Accords hardly settled all the age-old conflicts between Arabs and Israelis, but Egypt and Israel did conclude a peace treaty that has more or less held since, and a framework for establishing a broader Middle East peace was articulated. A pretty historic achievement in the end, one that seems so far away and long ago now.
Wright, a New Yorker magazine veteran who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11," packs the two-week drama atop a mountain near Thurmont, Md., into 90 minutes.
Even though the outcome is never in doubt, there is enough tension and surprise in the work to keep things interesting for the most part, especially for history buffs who won't mind the occasional minutiae of the debate.
Some of the dialogue cannot help but sound stagy, and some of it turns trite (Sadat: "For thirty years we have lived with our enemy. Can we live without him?").
But if it doesn't add up to great theater, the net effect is a neat little history lesson that is often quite entertaining, right down to the apparel the leaders wore and how they addressed each other.
It helps that there's a well-knit cast, guided with her usual assurance and nuance by Arena artistic director Molly Smith.
Richard Thomas, forever famed for his work on TV's "The Waltons," inhabits the role of Carter convincingly, even making the occasional direct addresses to God ring true.
Thomas has a great mate in Hallie Foote, who delivers Rosalynn's down-home insights and humor with considerable charm. These Carters emerge just as tenderly and in sync with each other as the real ones have always seemed to be. (The former president and his wife attended opening night.)
Khaled Nabawy (Sadat) and Ron Rifkin (Begin) offer finely detailed portrayals that reveal just how personal the negotiations became for each man, and how many ghosts haunted both the whole time.
Walt Spangler's set has a touch of sitcom and cartoon about it, but gets the job done and allows for a smooth flow of the action.
Before "Camp David" finishes its run at Arena, perhaps Secretary Kerry should invite today's recalcitrant Middle East leaders to Washington for a performance. Who knows? Maybe seeing this re-enactment of how proud men once figured out how to compromise could jolt them enough to do the same.
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