Josh Radnor Says It Took His Entire Jewish Life Experience to Star in ‘The Ally’ – Kveller
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Josh Radnor Says It Took His Entire Jewish Life Experience to Star in ‘The Ally’

Tony-winning Itamar Moses' play asks big questions about where Judaism intersects with social justice movements.


via Joan Marcus

A week after seeing “The Ally,” I casually drive across the George Washington Bridge to the Upper East Side, to that bastion of Jewish life — the 92NY — for a talk with the play’s Tony-award winning playwright, Itamar Moses, and its star, Josh Radnor. I calmly park a block away and walk into the well-lit theater where I sit on a plush, comfortable chair and listen to a masterfully led, bright and reverent Q&A led by Jessica Shaw.

In some ways, the experience feels like the antithesis of my experience with the play itself. While sitting in the Public Theater, I felt harried through it all — haunted, nervous and heavy, frantically scribbling in my sketchbook. Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother” and “Hunters”) plays Jewish theater professor Asaf Sternheim, who gets caught in a snowballing test of his progressive values and allyship after he is approached by his student Baron to sign a manifesto after the killing of his cousin by campus police. The manifesto includes a denunciation of Israel as an apartheid state that commits genocide against the Palestinian people. Sternheim decides to sign it, despite reservations, and gets recruited by pro-Palestinian campus organizers who hope he will sponsor an event with an anti-Zionist speaker. A pro-Israel student takes him to task. His ex-girlfriend Nikia (Cherise Boothe), the organizer behind the manifesto, adds to the tension, as does his wife, Gwen (Joy Osmanski), who also works for the unnamed university where he teaches.

It’s a play of many ideas, but at its core it questions whether the plight against antisemitism belongs in the broader movement for social and racial justice.

I left it feeling, as one critic aptly wrote — “a limp dishrag.” To be fair, I feel like a limp dishrag a lot these days. After so many events that felt like breaking points since October 7, in which the world and the war just kept going, I’ve felt like a husk of a person who just needs to lie down on the floor. The piles and piles of online words that I inundate myself with about the news don’t help.

But after leaving the event at the 92Y, I felt illuminated. Moses, the American-born son of Israeli immigrants who gained acclaim for his musical “The Band’s Visit,” explained the process he’d gone through with this play, now thrice extended at the Public. He talked about its many sources of inspiration: Obama-era events from years ago; the Open Hillel movement in college campuses and debates around it that left his own internal compass “a little bit spun;” and the 2016 cancelation of a Black Lives Matter benefit at 54 Below after a manifesto of the larger movement accused Israel of genocide.

“I felt myself being like, Oh, is that a reason to cancel this event? And then I felt this other little voice in me being like, Yeah, but why? And I was like, Oh, that’s interesting,” Moses recalled on stage.

Radnor signed up to do the play a year ago. He admired the work of Moses and director Lila Neugebauer, so before even reading the script, he knew he’d sign on. “This was everything I dreamed of being in the theater for,” he told the audience.

Then came October 7.

“It was harder to think of a lower-stakes question in that moment than what does this all mean for my off-Broadway play?” he recalled (you can imagine the laughter that line elicited). But he also realized that it was irresponsible not to realize the play — “the train was already in the tracks.”

The process of deciding whether or not to go forward with the production took time and many conversations, with The Public — still on board — and with Neugebauer — also still on board — and with the cast. “This needs to be a space where people don’t have to feel like the play, and putting the play on, is more important than their emotional or psychological health,” he said of conversations at the rehearsals space.

For Radnor, after October 7, he felt more called to do the play than ever before. He recalled Moses musing about being unsure whether in “The Ally,” he had the most or the least important play in the world.

The play wasn’t altered much to consider our post October 7 world. It’s set in September 2023, which means the audience knows of the tsunami about to make landfall, but the characters themselves do not. But Moses did go through it this past November to make some small changes. Then came time for the table reads, where Neugebauer did something that Moses quite admired – which was to make sure that everyone fully understood, in this play full of salient political facts, what they were saying. There was a dramaturg present and the room was laden with books, from Dara Horn to Rashid Khalidi. Radnor called it a “talmudic experience.”

There was also a carefulness with everyone’s personal and political identities. “I have a sense of people’s political views, but we never once went around the table said, ‘What do you think about Israel and Palestine?’ We approached it like we were in a yeshiva, and this was our Talmud. We were really digging under the text… and we were around the table for longer than I’ve ever done table work. It was like, over a week and a half, and I was like, are we going to stage this thing?”

They wanted to be sure, as they worked on the table reads, that it didn’t “feel like we’re just walking op-eds, just a talking head for a point of view. They have to really feel like flesh and blood characters; their politics emerge from who they are,” Radnor said. “That’s something the play really gets at — we find our politics because of who we are and how we see the world and what formed us and where we were hurt and where we’re looking for protection or allyship.”

As Radnor immersed himself into the role, he realized that it was the most demanding one he had ever taken to date. “It demanded everything I have learned in however long I’ve been a professional actor. Everything I learned at NYU, but also everything I learned from growing up Jewish. All my political [identity], everything I’ve done in therapy — everything was usable and everything was actually required. I’ve never had a role that required this much of me.”

“Asaf’s great virtue is that he has a very elastic mind,” Radnor added. “He hears people, and he can get underneath their argument. He can understand, but that also makes him very malleable… He can be pulled towards [anything] because of his big, empathetic imagination. That’s a virtue, I think. But in this play, it’s essentially his tragic flaw. Everyone else is carrying some sort of flag of certainty that he just doesn’t have… And then when his back is against the wall, he is shocked to discover that his reflex is to go towards his tribe, to say, ‘I’m Jewish, I’m concerned about Israel.'”

To cut down on moments where he felt like he was just inorganically spewing out facts, Radnor kept careful attention to how he felt as he was delivering the words, looking for the moments in which they felt wrong or too artificially put in. He shared a tradition he uses in his men’s group of checking in, telling each other how their body feels before certain performances.

“Especially in a time when a lot of the hurt out there… is people feel[ing] like they’re not being seen and heard just at a very basic level… there’s something about creating a container where you’re making something together. It felt so important to say, I see you, I hear you, tell me how you’re feeling. I’ll tell you how I’m feeling,” the actor said.

The reactions of the audience are different every night. Sometimes, they applaud after a speech made by Farid, a Palestinian student. Other times they applaud after a speech by Reuven, the kippah-donning, pro-Israel student, or after one from Baron, the Black student whose cousin was killed. (“No one applauds after any of my speeches,” Radnor lamented)

One time, a woman called out “bullshit” after something Farid said early in the second act (a friend of Radnor’s sitting next to her shushed her). The next night, people applauded and snapped at the exact same moment. More often than not, during intermission and after the end of the show, the theater fills with a din of people talking.

The ending of the play is another pain point, one that had to be workshopped quite a bit. The play was originally two scenes longer, and had explored many possibilities for the character of Asaf. Radnor said that those final two scenes not only felt wrong in his body, but also made his character feel bad, judged, moralized and “punished,” in a way that the current ending of the play does not. Moses did not want to have the play be moralizing or exhortative in any way. So we end with a visit to a wise and wonderful rabbi. At that point in the play, Radnor said, “Asaf needs a rabbi. I actually need a rabbi. I think the audience might be in need of some clergy in that moment.”

I don’t know what I personally needed at the end of “The Ally.” I felt unmoored — not necessarily a bad feeling to have after a play, but one I didn’t quite know what to do with, and one that didn’t feel different enough from the sense of being untethered that I had before seeing the play. I thought of all the people walking back to the subway having their post-theater talks. Did the play start to untangle something in them, as one viewer told Moses? Did it teach them anything new about the Palestinian perspective, as one Israeli friend told Radnor?

One sign of a good play: I’ve thought a lot about it since seeing it. I think about Farid’s speech, and how, as actor Michael Khalid Karadsheh said about it, “I don’t think anyone has said these words about Palestine on a stage in New York in such a clear, concise, beautiful, poetic way.” I think about how impassioned Ben Rosenfield, who plays Reuven, was in his own shining moment. I think about Madeleine Weinstein’s character talking about how she lost family to the Holocaust, and how the imperative to be there for Farid feels more important than anything. I think of the echoes of everything they’ve said in some of the smartest words that I’ve read in the years since I started working in Jewish media at the end of 2014.

I also think a lot about Baron, how beautifully drawn his character was, of his experience of being a Black college student in the shadow of a big university, being caught in these conversations and being open and big-hearted and trying and trying to do something.

And as much as I love Radnor, I try not to think about Asaf, about how much I am or am not like him.

“It just felt like a very smart comment section,” I told friends, frustrated, after I first watched the play. One of them replied, “But aren’t those almost non-existent?” Fair point.

Everything he sees written online, Radnor himself said, feels “very first draft, very angry… Itamar has worked on this play for so long that this is not a first draft of anything. This has been vetted.” For anyone who isn’t a “white nationalist,” he added, “there’s at least a monologue in here that will make your heart sing, wherever you are, politically. And you also have to sit and hear [things you] do not want to hear… and maybe often don’t hear.”

For Moses, the play forced him to, as he said, “look really, really hard at some things. I don’t know that it gave me clarity. I don’t think I will know completely how to or be able to articulate it for a while. But I think it’s for sure changed me.”

“You wrote this play because you have all these questions you didn’t know the answers to, and then you wrote this play and you still don’t know,” Radnor said to Moses on stage.

“Now I know that no one else does either,” Moses replied to chuckles.

And maybe that is why, despite knowing that it is good, important and timely theater, my feelings of unease with this play still remain. Because asking questions and having tough conversations is so important. And if I had watched it in September, I know I would’ve loved it so much more. But six months into this war, it is time for answers, too, and walking out of a play with just more questions and ideas, for me, felt too heartrending to endure.

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