The Camp David Accords might never have been signed were it not for President Jimmy Carter’s golf cart. In Camp David, the world premiere play at Arena Stage, there’s no way for characters to negotiate the stage without it.
As Carter, Richard Thomas never seems more confident that he’s steering Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (Ron Rifkin) and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (Khaled Nabawy) toward peace than when he’s behind the wheel of his onstage vehicle. It’s an ingenious device, providing both a convenient segue between scenes and a sense that the small stage is actually a 6,000-acre retreat in Frederick County where the world leaders have secretly squirreled themselves away for 13 days.
Longtime New Yorker scribe Lawrence Wright wrote the script, which is a thoroughly researched recreation of the 1978 talks that lead to a truce between Israel and Egypt and the eventual return of the Sinai Peninsula to the Arab nation. As with so many other history plays and classic dramas, the audience enters knowing how the show will end. It’s a challenge for theaters whether putting on Romeo and Juliet or Inherit the Wind.
But here’s the additional complication facing Camp David: The audience not only anticipates the final outcome, but as the show progresses, realizes that whatever motivations these characters have for brokering a deal will be rendered largely void with the passage of time. We pity these people like the victims of a cosmic joke, because what they think is at stake is not actually at stake.
“I’m staking my political career on this summit,” Carter says to Begin, promising that discussions about the West Bank and Jerusalem can continue in his second term. Sadat wants to live to see peace for his grandchildren. (He’d be assassinated in 1981.) Begin fears that if he signs the accords, it’s only one more slide down Mount Sinai until Israel, surrounded by enemies on four sides, will cease to exist. (It still does, see a map.)
Point conceded that Israel continues to jostle with its neighbors to this day, but that’s also problematic for the play: the details that Begin and Sadat haggle over include Muslim access to holy sites, a freeze on West Bank settlements and an autonomous Palestinian government. Rather than make the play timeless, the dialogue sounds stale, like a soundbites from a BBC World News Update without the accent.
All four actors deserve praise for effectively portraying their respective historical characters, and all come off as sincere rather than rehashing old arguments. Wright’s script allows for an interesting juxtaposition of the Abrahamic faiths, and presents all three men as devout; it’s just that Sadat prays prostrate while Carter opines to God, “Please don’t let me screw this up!” as he ties his tie. There are moments of levity, and Hallie Foote, as Rossalyn Carter, somehow manages to become both the play’s moral center and its comic relief. “What a woman!” Begin says, when she swoops in with tea at a particularly tense moment. “Are you sure she’s not Jewish?”
“Mazel tov! You’ve pulled it off,” one wants to say to these actors by show’s end. But their performances feel like a Pyrrhic victory, valiant efforts that do little do little to promote great theater or world peace.