The Ally


The Ally, a work in progress for the better part of the last decade, almost didn’t happen. The playbill you are handed when you walk into the theater is stuffed with notes providing cultural context from both the author and the artistic director of the Public Theater. There is a palpable tension in the intimate theater space. What you’re about to witness will not be an easy 90 minutes, whether you know it or not. 

Asaf Sternheim (Josh Radnor) followed his wife Gwen (Joy Osmanski) from their life in New York City to Generic College Town, America, where Gwen was offered a job at the university and where Asaf teaches a writing class part-time. One day Baron (Elijah Jones), a Black former student of Asaf’s, walks into his office hours, asking for a favor. Will Asaf sign a social justice manifesto, written in reaction to the brutal, unjust, and very public murder of Baron’s cousin by the local police? The only problem: this manifesto also calls for the divestment from and sanctioning of Israel over their “apartheid” in Palestine. 

Itamar Moses’s drama complicates scene by scene with each new character introduced. Baron reveals that he’s been working with local social justice organizer Nakia (Cherise Boothe), who – surprise! – Asaf dated 20 years ago. Students stream in and out of Asaf’s office hours, spurred on by what they believe his politics to be while Asaf is barely aware of what they are himself. Asaf’s Korean-American wife Gwen serves as his touchstone for talking out his tangled emotions. She says little in comparison to his lengthy word count, but Joy Osmanski’s physical and emotional acting as Gwen tells the audience (and Asaf) everything we need to know about what she’s thinking. Throughout it all, everyone – most notably Baron – keeps asking Asaf why he hasn’t yet watched the video of Baron’s cousin’s murder at the hands of the police, for which Asaf never has a good answer. 

Josh Radnor, perhaps best known as the star of How I Met Your Mother, embodies the complex role of Asaf with an alternating gravitas and existential panic that fleshes out the character into someone you really think you might know. He delivers the punchier jokes with a sitcom-y deadpan, but his dramatic lines are played with an emotional poignance. Like The Ally’s playwright, Itamar Moses, Asaf is the Jewish son of Israeli immigrants, born and raised in Berkeley, a writer and writing professor by trade. It feels important to the development of the character that the very first scene includes Gwen worrying about his social isolation in their new town, and urging him to get out of the house. (When Asaf protests that he teaches, Gwen retorts: “You literally teach fourteen days a year!”)

Everything comes to a head in what Asaf later refers to as “a very complicated five-sided conversation…in which I was repeatedly provoked.” Michael Khalid Karadsheh, playing Gazan student Farid, delivers a series of devastating monologues with an emotional gravity that had been heretofore hidden in the shadows of other characters. Cherise Boothe as Nakia also shines in this climactic scene, playing off of Radnor with fierceness and intensity.

Moses’s writing is sharp and emotional, making The Ally impossible to turn away from even when you cringe or want to get up and take a breather from all that is happening on stage. In many ways – and I believe this was Moses’s intent – the play is like being forced to witness a Twitter comment argument happening live, and you are completely powerless to simply turn off your phone and walk away. (Moses admits most of it was “written during a period of [his] life when [he] still thought an effective use of [his] time was to argue with people about politics on social media.”)

More than anything, The Ally seems to be a work of art created – at least in the form in which it is now – to parse through the complex and contradictory thoughts and opinions of one man, namely, the writer. Art should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, but The Ally certainly seems to do all of the latter and none of the former. 

Written by Itamar Moses

Directed by Lily Neugebauer

Cast includes: Cherise Boothe, Elijah Jones, Michael Khalid Karadsheh, Joy Osmanski, Josh Radnor, Ben Rosenfield, Madeline Weinstein

Approx 90 min

Location: The Public Theater