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The Ally

Itamar Moses' second act sets the stage on fire in a way very few plays ever do in this intriguing new play of ideas.

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Ben Rosenfield and Josh Radnor in a scene from Itamar Moses’ “The Ally” at The Public Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Itamar Moses’ The Ally is a play of ideas not only torn from today’s headlines but tomorrow’s as well. Ostensibly dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian question on college campuses today, it also deals with censorship, anti-Semitism, racism, capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy and white supremacy. The play protagonist, a Jewish liberal teacher on a college campus, is asked to sign a social justice manifesto and finds that it challenges his political, marital, academic, American and Jewish beliefs. This is a good deal for one play to take on, possibly too much, but Lila Neugebauer’s production for The Public Theater almost gets all of it right for this provocative and heady play, with one caveat.

The play catches fire in its second act which is both riveting and mesmerizing. This is the heart of Moses’ play. Unfortunately, the first act which introduces the characters and their points of view plays like a series of five lectures or monologues which, though interesting, seem like too much information to take in at one time. They are also staged pretty much the same way so that visually we are watching the same scene over and over again even though the ideas change. In the second half when the five points of view are debated, the participants bounce their ideas off of each other as the tension rises which is much more engaging.

Madeline Weinstein, Michael Khalid Karadsheh and Elijah Jones in a scene from Itamar Moses’ “The Ally” at The Public Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The play is set at a prestigious American university somewhere in New England. Ironically, it takes place in September 2023 before the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict erupted. Although Lael Jellinek’s spare, empty space set does not differentiate, the scenes in the first act alternate between Asaf and Gwen’s home and his office at the university. The second act takes place in a lecture hall and lastly at a synagogue. Reza Behjat’s lighting helps define the unseen settings.

The play begins when Asaf Sternheim, a writer and adjunct professor of playwriting, screenwriting and tv writing is confronted with his Korean American wife Gwen Kim’s request for him to support her as University Administrator for Community Relations and External Affairs in the university’s attempt to expand but this time to include affordable housing in the plan. Next he meets with Baron Prince, an African American college senior and former writing student of his, a member of an activist group called Voice to Action whose cousin Deronte Lee was killed by the police in a mistaken identity in a case of a stolen car. Baron wants him to sign a manifesto against police brutality but which calls for the United States to “impose sanctions on the apartheid state of Israel until it ends the settler colonialist oppression of the Palestinians,” Israel being the only country singled out for oppression of a minority people. Asaf is in a strange position as his parents are Israeli which gives him Israeli citizenship. Baron is supported by Nakia Clark, an African American community organizer who ironically was Asaf’s girlfriend at college 20 years before and developed his interest in activist politics.

Josh Radnor, Madeline Weinstein, Cherise Boothe and Michael Khalid Karadsheh in a scene from Itamar Moses’ “The Ally” at The Public Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Asaf is next approached by Rachel Klein, a Jewish college junior, and Farid El Masry, a Palestinian American college junior. Until recently, she was a member of the Jewish Student Union and he a member of the Students for Palestinian Justice. Their organizations were going to co-sponsor a joint event inviting Dr. Isaac Roth, a controversial expert on Middle Eastern affairs who is critical of Israeli policies, to speak on campus but they find out that the charter of the J.S.U. forbids them from inviting him and from co-sponsoring an event with the S.P.J. because they call for “Palestinian autonomy over Palestinian land.” Now they want to found a new organization that can sponsor the original event and they need a “young, Jewish, progressive, and cool” member of the faculty to be their adviser. They offer it to Asaf.

Ultimately, Asaf is confronted by Reuven Fisher, an orthodox Jew who is a PhD candidate in Jewish History and Judaic Studies and also a member of the Jewish Student Union. He wants to convince the professor as a Jew and as an Israeli not to support bringing on campus a speaker who in his eyes is calling for the destruction of the state of Israel. He does not see it as a matter of free speech but one of not allowing propaganda that might ultimately result in your death. Reuven thinks that this call for a discussion of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is simply a way of bringing up anti-Semitism tropes and that this should not be allowed in a public meeting. However, Asaf does not see that someone who questions the motives behind some of Israeli’s more aggressive policies should be denied a forum on a college campus. And that is when Reuven brings up the anti-Israeli language in the Deronte Lee Manifesto.

Joy Osmanski in a scene from Itamar Moses’ “The Ally” at The Public Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

While the first act is all a laying out of various facts, the second act bursts into a bonfire after the Roth lecture when Asaf asks some seemingly innocent questions about the way Israel seems to be singled out in the Deronte Lee Manifesto. The seven character cast is very well matched in their points of view and attitudes. As the protagonist and title character, television star Josh Radnor (best known for his work on How I Met Your Mother) has a suitably passive demeanor as the professor-writer who wants to be fair to all sides of every issue. Playing his Asian American wife, Joy Osmanski is given a kind of devil’s advocate role reminding her husband of the consequences of his various choices.

As the representative for African Americans as well as his late cousin, Elijah Jones has a very even tempered stance. While Madeline Weinstein and Michael Khalid Karadsheh as the Israeli/Palestinian counterparts begin as clear-headed, they quickly move in an extremist direction in terms of their ideas. At the far right is Ben Rosenfield’s explosive and angry Reuven as the orthodox representative who only believes that there is one right opinion. As Asaf’s equal in age and experience, Cherise Boothe displays a legalistic mind set on the questions under debate that is quite refreshing after all of the students’ muddled, one-sided thinking.

Josh Radnor in a scene from Itamar Moses’ “The Ally” at The Public Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Unlike any of Itamar Moses’ other dramatic works (The Four of Us, Back Back Back, Completeness, etc.), The Ally is unusual as a play of ideas, something we rarely see on the American stage. While it suggests there may be no solution to the questions raised, it offers a lively, animated debate about the questions of censorship and anti-Semitism now raging on college campuses due to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its second act sets the stage on fire in a way very few plays ever do. Ultimately, Lila Neugebauer’s production will give you a tremendous amount to think about and debate once you have left the theater.

The Ally (extended through April 7, 2024)

The Public Theater

Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit

Running time: two hours and 40 minutes including one intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (983 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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