When President Jimmy Carter brought Anwar-el Sadat, president of Egypt, and Menachem Begin, Israel’s prime minister, to Camp David on September 6, 1978, he only intended the meeting to last two or three days. Instead, the summit on Middle East relations lasted for 13 and changed the course of history.
The Alley Theatre’s production of Camp David, which runs through March 15, details the arduous and at times contentious negotiations that resulted in the Camp David Accords and a peace treaty that has stood for more than 40 years.
“One of the thrilling things about this piece is it's not literally a docudrama, but it is a really accurate record of what happened at Camp David,” says Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the famed Public Theater who travelled from New York City to guide the Alley’s production. “This is historically truthful, and that adds a whole extra weight to the piece.”
It’s not surprising Camp David carries a certain authority on the subject matter it is portraying—the playwright, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Lawrence Wright, literally wrote the book on the Camp David Accords, albeit after he penned the play.
The version of Camp David that comes to the Alley is decidedly different than the play that had its world premiere at Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage in 2014. Two new characters, Mohammed Ibrahim Kamel, Egypt’s foreign minister, and Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, have been added, which allows the play to delve more deeply into the discussions that took place at the remote presidential retreat.
“By allowing them to argue with their superiors, what we get is a much more nuanced feeling of what forces were pushing on Begin and Sadat,” Eustis says. “And we also get to see the difference between what they say when they're among themselves and the masks that they have to put on when they’re negotiating.”
From Houston with Love?
The fact that the premiere of this reworked Camp David is being held in Texas is not that much of a stretch, after all Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker, lives in Austin. The bigger surprise is Eustis himself: The director has had his finger on the pulse of American theater for decades, having commissioned Tony Kushner’s Angeles in America and produced the musical juggernaut Hamilton.
While Eustis does have connections to both Wright and Alley Theatre Artistic Director Rob Melrose, his coming to Houston is worth noting. The director did not confirm that the Alley’s production of Camp David is a precursor to a future run at The Public, but he did acknowledge that workshopping a new show outside of New York is a common practice among theater practitioners.
“We certainly haven’t got anything to announce, haven’t put it on the calendar, but there’s no question I wouldn’t be spending my time in Houston if, on some level, it wasn’t for the benefit of The Public Theater, because that’s who I work for,” he says with a chuckle.
Seeing All Sides
There’s another reason for staging Camp David in Houston first: Tensions around the Middle East run high in New York City, and any topic at all connected with the region often sparks animosity. It would be difficult for the show’s creative team to assess what resonates with an audience when those viewers walk into a theater with a preconceived view and become polarized from the moment the curtain rises.
“The present-tense battle lines around who believes what about the Middle East and who's on whose side in the MidEast are so ferocious and so passionately held that it’s incredibly hard to do anything that doesn't simply immediately put people into their predigested opinions,” Eustis says. “People figure out whose side you're on, and then they stake out their side.”
Part of Camp David's beauty is that while all sides of the issues are examined, the play itself does not favor anyone and instead presents Begin’s, Carter’s, and Sadat’s points of view in an equally sympathetic way. This, Eustis says, is the first step on the road to compromise and compassion, something that is desperately needed if real change, like what the Camp David Accords brought, is to ever develop.
“My hope," he says, "is that this is going to be a way to sort of slip underneath people's defenses and their knee-jerk responses to Mideast politics and actually get them to listen to the other side.”
Thru Mar 15. From $49. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. More info and tickets at alleytheatre.org.