nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
February 15, 2007
One week ago, our government expressed growing concerns about Iran. Many readers no doubt remember the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, as well. The Butane Group's new work Operation Ajax looks back even further in our relationship with Iran—to 1953, when a CIA action deposed Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh and returned Shah Reza Pahlavi to power, inadvertently setting the stage for more recent conflict.
The story is told through the perspective of Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., (Jay Smith), the CIA officer who led the operation. Roosevelt, as embodied by Smith, seems to have been quite a character—smooth as James Bond, if somewhat of a loose cannon. In particular, the CIA-directed coup nearly failed in its infancy, and the CIA ordered him out of the country; but he ignored the order—three times—and completed the mission. Smith's performance made me want to read more about Roosevelt, and what would make him stay when the CIA was telling him to go.
The script itself has one suggestion why this may be, though, as well as a guess why the United States keeps involving itself in foreign affairs—it equates this obsession with a gambling addiction. The set and script use gambling as a theme throughout; the spare set consists only of a casino table, a couple of chandeliers, and some chairs; the only props are cards, dice, and poker chips; Smith uses the latter to great effect when describing the coup, using the various props to "show" the audience the unfolding story. Much of the rest of the cast takes on a more ensemble role, appearing briefly as other players in this "game" (Albert Aeed as the Secretary of State, Dorothy Abrahams as Mossadegh, and Nicholas Warren-Gray as a young Shah), but then leaping in and out of other characters as conditions warrant. Towards the very end, Rodney Hakim makes a brief cameo as Iranian poet Reza Baraheni, a dissident who was tortured for speaking out against the Shah.
Speaking of the script, Director Noel Salzman—also the writer—takes the intriguing approach of compiling the script from 30 text sources, including everything from Roosevelt's memoirs to reality shows about gambling to Persian religious theater to James Bond movies. As disparate as all the material is, Salzman ably fits it together. You don't think it would work for the Ayatollah Khomeni (Gavin Starr Kendall) serenading us with "Luck Be A Lady," but in this show, it makes sense.
Yet fascinating as the source material is, it seems when Salzman was editing it, he used the rule "when in doubt, leave it in" once or twice too often. All other elements rise to the challenge—the cast does a fine job delivering it all, and Salzman's staging is inventive. Also, it's true that a thorough understanding of Middle East politics requires you to digest a lot of information. But as a theater piece, at times there simply is too much material to listen to, and the effect is lost.
Case in point: in one scene, the cast recites a list of CIA foreign operations—it is a complete list of all operations they've conducted since the year 1953. It's a very long list, which is probably the point. Still—while it's one thing to read that list, it is quite another to sit for a full five minutes doing nothing but listen to people recite that list. Despite Salzman's best efforts to dramatize it—a musical underscoring, Smith's increasingly manic recitation, even some hand-jive motions—my mind wandered towards the end, and rather than feeling dawning horror at the depth of our nation's involvement in foreign affairs, I instead was wondering, "how long did that all take?"
This is timely material, a creative script, and a hard-working cast. It's probably a sad statement that there's simply too much to this issue for an audience to listen to, but perhaps it's also a true one; at times telling the tale of history requires you to leave things out, so your listeners can better focus on what you've left in.