Oriana Fallaci basks in the limelight once more in the new play "Fallaci," now in its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
The iconic journalist was no stranger to the realm of the celebrity. And no doubt she would be flattered that an ink-stained wretch as esteemed as Lawrence Wright has chosen to pay homage to her life and work.
But this is no fawning valentine to the legendary Italian journalist. More of a well-researched profile than a play, this provocative but flawed 90-minute piece delves into Fallaci's flaws as well as her gifts.
After all, the Pulitzer-winning Wright has made his name with hard-hitting exposés on topics ranging from Scientology ("Going Clear") to al-Qaida ("The Looming Tower"). He is not one to gloss over the dark side of Fallaci's personality. But as heady as the ideas are here, they never feel rooted in the naked emotional truth that memorable theater demands.
Still, "Fallaci" works well as a character study in its first half with Oskar Eustis' crisp staging illuminating Fallaci's fiery brand of audacity.
As astutely portrayed by the formidable Concetta Tomei, Fallaci comes across as half warrior, half diva. As a girl, she worked with the resistance forces in World War II Italy and never lost her zealous sense of mission. She struck fear in the hearts of men from Fidel Castro to Henry Kissinger. She was an intrepid war reporter who seemed most alive when in the most danger. From Vietnam to Iran, she put it all on the line to uncover what she saw as the truth, and she wasn't particularly concerned if her version of events differed wildly from that of her subjects.
She also was a master manipulator who understood that notoriety is its own form of power. She honed her own fame, and she never doubted her right to pass judgment on others. Hailed as a fearless and combative interviewer, she never deferred to authority. If a politician was foolish enough to try and pass off a lie to her, she reveled in their destruction. She coaxed them into admitting things they would later regret and influenced the course of world events.
Tomei (TV's "China Beach" and "Providence") nails that regal air of courage and entitlement, the way Fallaci "leaned in" to her skyrocketing journalism career. Certainly she earned her reputation for heroism covering wars across the globe. She cast off her chador during an interview with Ayatollah Khomeini, calling it a "medieval rag." She baited Kissinger into admitting that Vietnam was a useless war. She was shot three times and left for dead.
At the start of the play, Fallaci has long since retired from the front lines. She has holed herself up in her New York apartment amid teetering stacks of books to write her notorious "The Rage and the Pride." She has all but sunk into obscurity, but she still keeps a combat helmet hanging from the coat rack.
Certainly, she never backed down from a fight, even when she might have been wrong. Toward the end of her life, she stirred up controversy for her denunciations of Islam.
In Wright's two-hander, those views break the heart of cub reporter Maryam (Marjan Neshat), who had idolized Fallaci from afar. When she finally meets her hero up close, she realizes that world leaders are not the only ones with feet of clay.
Alas, this is where Wright's marriage of journalism and theater gets rocky. While the cat-and-mouse games between the interviewer and the subject are engaging, Maryam never feels like a real person. She's just a convenient framing device for Fallaci's insights; the more deeply Wright delves into their relationship, the more the piece flounders. The symbolic weight of the Maryam character is too much for the drama to bear.
There's no denying that the play touches on many fascinating topics, but in the end, it ducks the hard questions about its central figure. Her vilification of Islam, for instance, is never fully explored. A destructive love affair is discussed but not explained. Ambiguity can be tantalizing, but here it feels as if Fallaci's mysteries are buried in a densely plotted ending.
It's a pity, because there's so much real tragedy and adventure in the story of Fallaci, the journalist who wrote herself into the news.
Written by Lawrence Wright, directed by Oskar Eustis
Through: April 21
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $29-$89, 510-647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org