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Restraint, respect, dignity—all the qualities our nation has so conspicuously surrendered in recent years—threaten to pasteurize a theatrical event that should be rawer than the Studio Theatre allows. Assured it most assuredly is, and executed with the kind of tasteful matte professionalism that’s become a sort of Studio standard, and I suppose it’s outraged in its quiet way. There’s nothing sickening about it, though, and sickening it should be to anyone with anything like a conscience.
Why? Because Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom is nonfiction, not the product of a playwright’s imagination, a factual chronicle of the immoralities visited on four Britons, all of them Muslim, all of them brown-skinned, all of them locked away from the light at a military detention center that Amnesty International has famously termed an American gulag. With secret CIA prisons making fresh headlines, with suicidal detainees and Defense Department rebuffs of U.N. investigators reinforcing suspicions about what’s happening in the camps at Guantánamo, director Serge Seiden probably thinks a tone of measured anguish ought to be sufficient to stir his audience—and he’s probably right, except that nothing measured seems quite satisfying anymore, not when it comes to this administration and the blot it’s left on our national name.
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On a sharply raked stage that slopes from a chain-link cage down to a patch of pebbly ground meant to evoke the beaches of Guantánamo Bay, events…well, they’re described more than they occur. Which is both part of Guantánamo’s singular power and part of what makes it problematic in the theater. It’s a kind of grim memory play, drawn from prisoner letters and family interviews and statements from various governments and politicians, so nothing actually happens onstage—just as nothing, for year upon year, happens in the cells where the four men sit, waiting for the United States to remember that it doesn’t hold prisoners without charges or trials or even access to lawyers. (One of Seiden’s stronger choices, in fact, keeps the detainees caged onstage in lieu of a curtain call—leaving his audience unsettled, in precisely the right way, about when and whether it’s appropriate to turn their backs and leave.)
Instead, events and places and indecencies are described: Azmat Begg (Harsh Nayyar), the proper British banker father of Moazzam Begg (Kaveh Haerian), remembers his son’s phoning from the trunk of a car, where the young man had been stashed by the CIA after his arrest in Pakistan in 2002. Manchester-born Jamal al-Harith (Andrew Stewart-Jones) remembers the trip to Pakistan and the truck hijacking that landed him in a Taliban cell, accused of being a British spy—and the coming of the Americans, who shipped him off to Cuba, to hoods and shackles and beatings and the sense that the truth about what he’d been doing in Pakistan was far less important than a confession. Iraqi-born British entrepreneur Wahab al-Rawi (Omar Koury) remembers the business trip to the Gambia that turned into an ongoing nightmare for his brother Bisher (Ramiz Monsef), still an Iraqi citizen and therefore beyond the reach of the United Kingdom, which helped spring Begg and others after years of diplomatic wrangling.
It’s all delivered evenly—sometimes with a shock of dark, disbelieving humor, even—but reviews in London and New York spoke of the play’s “visceral charge” and “gut-level despair,” and that never materializes in Studio’s careful staging. Only Nayyar as Azmat, wondering mournfully what happened to the notion of a speedy trial for his son, conjures something like real feeling—well, Nayyar and John-Michael MacDonald, playing the bottled-up brother of a British woman who died in the first tower on 9/11. MacDonald’s choked, decent anger, his conflict over the great wrongs being leveled to address a great wrong, comes across as the most honest thing in the production: “My sister would have been incensed,” he says, at what her country and ours have allowed to happen—“but, then, she was incinerated.”
Stewart-Jones makes a smart, resilient, funny-tough al-Harith, captured but never conquered. Leo Erickson moves suavely from the grave patrician cadences of the British jurist Lord Steyn to the slick half-answers of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Dikran Tulaine, David Bryan Jackson, Yvonne Erickson, and Monsef do clipped and quietly appalled work as various lawyers and activists working to free the detainees—or at least to win them the right to a trial.
That last, really, speaks to a clarity of purpose that’s Guantánamo’s long suit: Delivered largely in the words of its central foursome, it nonetheless never turns into a diatribe insisting on their innocence—Azmat Begg, in fact, makes a point of not claiming to know what his son might have been doing in Pakistan. Instead the play underscores, firmly and without stridency, that there are defensible and indefensible ways of going about determining guilt or innocence, and that the question is beside the point as long as there’s no mechanism for adjudicating it. It argues, with the essayist William Pfaff in this month’s Harper’s, “that those who so degrade others reveal their own—and their nation’s—degradation.” And in so arguing it asks how much longer we’re prepared to stand naked and shamed, our national honor bound and gagged in what our leaders are pleased to call the defense of freedom, while the world watches aghast. CP