by JK Clarke
In his first book, War on Peace, published last summer, New Yorker investigative journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner (for his exposé on Harvey Weinstein) Ronan Farrow bemoaned the present state of U.S. foreign relations and the erosion of the country’s diplomatic corps under the Trump Administration. “We’ve been chipping away at diplomacy,” he told The New Yorker. Our ability to communicate with both our friends and enemies, he said, has taken a serious hit. Having worked in the State Department, as well as many government and humanitarian agencies in the early 2000s, Farrow knows whereof he speaks. This real life crisis is likely the sort of scenario Helen Banner had in mind when she penned Intelligence (now playing at Next Door at NYTW through February 3) the story of a less-than-able diplomat and her attempt to solve international strife with the skills of a superficial corporate marketing hack.
Set in a windowless basement conference room of a state department building adorned with digital clocks set to time zones around the world (an unsubtle, and unnecessary, reminder that diplomacy is a global business), with a long sleek table and high backed, luxurious (for an office) leather chairs (Carolyn Mraz, scenic designer), we are introduced to two women who’ve arrived for the first day of a mysterious new assignment: Lee (Kaliswa Brewster) and Paige (Amelia Pedlow), both young government professionals who couldn’t be more different, despite the similarities in their ambition and drive. When the section head, Sarah (Rachel Pickup), who has hired the two women, arrives the fog is only slightly lifted. Sarah may be communicating her project objectives to Paige and Lee (an in-house guide on how to conduct negotiations with hostile entities: “New Training Scenarios for the Resolution of Intractable Global Situations”), but neither we, nor the two young women, believe her entirely—largely because it feels as if she has ulterior motives. She seems to be brainstorming with these two women who, though junior, appear to have more experience than she, so that she can explore some mistakes she’s already made in the field.
The concept behind Intelligence is filled with promise: what happens in a state department run by a government that is more interested in military solutions than negotiation? But we never really get to explore that thought because the script is defined by one implausible scenario after another. While it’s disturbing that Sarah doesn’t appear to grasp the seriousness of her role, it’s more troubling that, despite her inexperience she was allowed to negotiate with the head of a “splinter group” (code for a Middle Eastern jihadist organization, in this context) about whom she appears to know next to nothing.
Sarah seems uneducated about the people and culture of the region and is conducting negotiations without the State Department’s approval. When asked who she reports to in the organization, her startling reply is, “No one. This is my mission.” I’m no expert, but I think this would practically qualify as a jailable offense. What’s more, at one point she explains how she not only speaks to the leader of said “splinter group” in an aggressive, overly assertive manner, but recounts how she laid her hands on him. This, despite that he’s a man whose culture treats women as second class citizens and who has already demonstrated a capacity to commit horrific violence against them. That she was able to walk out of the room with her head still attached to her body is probably the least likely aspect of the whole story.
Clearly meant to be irritating and to show the diplomatic corps in the hands of a naive, ugly American, Sarah has extra levels of annoying: from snapping her fingers, to insisting on childish and absurd role playing scenarios that make little sense and could hardly serve to aid the diplomats. While Farrow’s assertions that the diplomatic corps has, of late, been given short shrift by the administration are undeniable, to suggest that the rank and file of the state department is not only incompetent but rudderless, is insulting. It’s a proud institution with a long history, staffed with some of the most intelligent people in the government and marked by its rigorous training.
Director Jess Chayes and the cast acquit themselves well with the material at hand, but said material falls so far out of the realm of feasibility that one can’t engage with it on any level. A well-researched or fact-based version of this play might prove compelling, but this wasn’t it.
Intelligence. Through February 3 at Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop (79 East Fourth Street, between Second Avenue and the Bowery). 100 minutes, no intermission. www.nytw.org
Photos: Hunter Canning