The Leopard and the Fox
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 17, 2007
The Leopard is Zulfikar Ali Bhutto,who was President and then Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1971 to 1977. The Fox is Muhammed Zia-ul-Haq, who was Bhutto's Chief of Staff and successor, ruling Pakistan until 1988. The Leopard and The Fox is Rajiv Joseph's play about the events that led to the overthrow and then hanging of the first of these men, and the rise to power of the second; presented in its world premiere by Alter Ego Productions, it has a certain resonance in that today (one day after the play's opening night), Bhutto's daughter Benazir returned to Pakistan from an eight-year exile.
As an American with only the barest grasp of the history depicted in this play, I found the piece more rewarding for the questions it raised than the ones it answered. Preparing to write this review, I spent a while on the Internet, looking for some background info to put Joseph's play in perspective (an interesting site that I found is this one, from Pakistan). Now I'm more confused than I was last night, for it appears that the events as outlined in The Leopard and The Fox (itself inspired by Tariq Ali's unproduced screenplay of the same name) are not precisely the same as the ones I find online. An interesting can of worms has been opened...
Joseph's play focuses on two stories. The more intriguing and completely told of these centers on a Washington Post journalist named Dave Cherry (is he an actual historical figure?—I couldn't find anything about him) who receives a tip from his friend, CIA agent Ed Asmaan, that Bhutto is going to be deposed. Military leaders in Pakistan, led by Zia, are going to stage a coup, and they have the backing of the CIA, which wants to oust Bhutto because of his socialist leanings (this is the 1970s; the Cold War is still going on) and because of his desire to make Pakistan a nuclear power. As this plot line develops, Asmaan's manipulation of Cherry proves both chilling and prophetic.
The second story, intertwined with the first, concerns the relationship between Zia and Bhutto. Zia is shown here to have served Bhutto loyally for 20 years, which makes his willingness to oversee his overthrow seem odd—at least until we learn that he apparently harbors deep resentment toward his despotic and elitist boss. This makes dramatic sense, but Joseph's explanation feels a bit reductive: is the shift of power in Pakistan solely caused by one man's feelings toward another?
What's missing from both stories is the context that I started to search for on the Net and elsewhere today. What was the social/political/economic state of Pakistan in 1977, when the coup took place? Joseph has Bhutto pronounce more than once that the people of Pakistan love him: was that true, and if so, why? The CIA link feels believable enough given our current understanding of how that agency seems to operate, but I found nothing to substantiate it in my brief research. Does Joseph have good sources for this assertion, or is he taking dramatic license, drawing a parallel between events in the Middle East/Southwest Asia today and then? There's some useful background provided in the show's program; more data that will clarify and document what's fact and what's conjecture in this play might make the piece more persuasive.
Though of course, this is drama, not history; how does it fare by that measure? Joseph has a great thriller to unfold here, and it's riveting. But his language feels more casual and contemporary than authentic, and its filled Mametianly with scatological and obscene words that come across as a lazy shorthand rather than smart dramatic writing.
Giovanna Sardelli's direction is brisk and taut, making use of a unit set by David Newell that smartly lays out all of the play's many locations simultaneously, so that the frequent transitions are entirely seamless. Leon Dobkowski's costumes define place and period effectively, and Nick Francone's lighting serves the piece nicely. Ramiz Monsef and Gita Reddy, as Zulfikar and Benazir Bhutto respectively, turn in the most impressive performances, showing us the haughty sense of entitlement of these two along with their shrewd political sense and intelligence. Andrew Guilarte, Sanjiv Jhaveri, Rock Kohli, Michael Crane, and David Sajadi comprise the rest of the ensemble.
For me, the main achievement of The Leopard and The Fox is to remind me how seriously deficient my knowledge of the sixth most populous country in the world really is. There are interesting and important stories to be told to Americans about Pakistan, and while this play opens only a small window, it's one worth peering into as we look for more portals into a culture and history we need to learn and understand.