Intelligence, the new play at Arena Stage about the Valerie Plame CIA scandal, comes at a very timely moment in politics. As Donald Trump appears increasingly clownish, the presidency of George W. Bush is starting to look a bit rosier. After all, despite his flaws, Dubya never tweeted like a teenager or harassed the handicapped, right? And just in time, the second President Bush is indeed stepping back (a bit) into the spotlight, doing a few controlled appearances on CNN and Jimmy Kimmel. So, a play about the Valerie Plame scandal and the invasion of Iraq is an important and sobering reminder of what really happened in the early aughts. Perhaps this zeitgeist is why Intelligence has already been extended by a week by Arena Stage due to strong ticket sales during previews.
Jacqueline E. Lawton’s script is a tightly wound drama that hovers (somewhat uneasily) between a spy thriller, a domestic drama, and a political polemic. The writing is reasonably compelling and the cast, led by the excellent Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame, is talented enough to make Intelligence an entertaining and occasionally enlightening evening of theatre. More importantly, Intelligence serves as a timely reminder of the human cost of politics – a message more relevant than ever.
For those of you for whom, like me, “Valerie Plame” rang only the farthest of bells, the story is basically this: Valerie Plame Wilson was a longtime CIA covert officer. She happened to be married to Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador to Iraq who proved to be a significant gadfly to the Bush Administration in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. Seemingly in retaliation to Wilson’s loud denunciations of a particular “16 Word” lie Bush told in the 2003 State of the Union, the Administration prodded a Washington Post reporter to leak Valerie Plame’s identity in his newspaper column. Her cover was blown and her career at the CIA was effectively over.
Beyond telling the story of the scandal from Plame’s point of view, Intelligence looks more broadly at the human side of intelligence gathering. For instance, we are shown a glimpse of how Plame must interact with her “assests” – in this case, Dr. Malik Nazari (Ethan Hova) and his niece Leyla (Nora Achrati) – in a way that is both steely CIA but also compassionate and human. Hova and Achrati bring a lot to this play, especially by bringing up the non-American perspective on 9/11 and the War on Terror.
Whether or not the Valerie Plame scandal was truly an incident of political retribution can never be proven, but it is certainly the point of view of this play. “I toed the party line, I went along with them”, Yellend wails after she is outed, “and the Administration threw me to the fucking wolves”. Powerful language, if a little on the nose. And Yelland, as well as Lawrence Redmond, who plays Joseph Wilson – play it to the hilt. They are the ultimate DC power couple, just as likely to get into fights over chemical weapon nonproliferation as they are over their toddlers’ toys. It is fitting that Intelligence is the newest installment of Arena Stage’s intriguing, years-long “Power Plays” program of new works that focus on politics and power in America.
Director Daniella Topol makes sure that Intelligence never loses its momentum, and does some clever things to keep the story moving along. For instance, the set, by Misha Kachman, is made up of sliding panels and wheeled set pieces that can instantly change the scene from a Langley office building to a Jordanian coffee shop. Strong, precise lighting by Kathy Perkins helps also to keep the scenes distinct. Sound, including some original music, by Jane Shaw adds a pleasantly torpid atmosphere to the piece.
Between scenes, evocative projections of televised political statements from the post-9/11 period (by Projection Designer Jared Mezzocchi) provide context and also serve as a sobering counterpoint to what we see on stage.
It’s easy to become trapped in the 24-hour news cycle where what happened yesterday or even this morning is not as important as what’s showing up on your screen or your Twitter feed right now. So it’s good that we have shows like Intelligence that can take an in depth meditation on something that happened in the recent past. Not only is Intelligence entertaining and fascinating – it’s important, too.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Magic Time! ‘Intelligence’ at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater by John Stoltenberg.
Intelligence plays through April 9, 2017, at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for the American Theater’s Kogod Cradle – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase tickets online.