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Signature Moves: “The Ally” reviewed

In the final scene of The Ally, now receiving its world premiere at the Public Theater, the tormented central character goes to see a rabbi to ask for advice. He’s Asaf (Josh Radnor), a part-time university professor who’s recently been caught up in a maelstrom of activist student groups embroiled in such hot-button social issues as the Black Lives Matter movement and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The rabbi patiently listens to his concerns before finally telling him, “Professor Sternheim, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the thing you need may not be more words.”

It’s advice that should have been offered to the playwright Itamar Moses (Bach at Leipzig, The Band’s Visit), who has delivered a two-hour, forty-five-minute polemic instead of a living, breathing play. Composed almost entirely of arguments and monologues in which the barely defined characters deliver passionate arguments delineating their positions, The Ally proves consistently intellectually provocative. But it mainly feels like a series of lengthy, barely dramatized op-ed pieces, many recited with the pulsating anger so often demonstrated by well-meaning but self-righteous students on college campuses that makes you want to slap them even when you agree with what they’re saying.

The story begins with the forty-something Asaf, who teaches a “playwriting, screenwriting and TV writing” course one day a week, one semester a year, being approached by a former student, the African-American Baron (Elijah Jones), to lend his name to a manifesto condemning the recent shooting death of Baron’s cousin by the police who mistakenly suspected him of car theft. The sympathetic Asaf tentatively agrees, but has misgivings when he reads the lengthy document that drifts from its primary subject to also condemn the “apartheid state of Israel,” which it accuses of genocide.

Asaf’s Korean-American wife Gwen (Joy Osmanski) understands his concerns, considering that he’s Jewish and his parents came from Israel. But he denies that the issue is personal, instead insisting, “My feelings about Israel are the reasonable ones.” But he eventually agrees to sign the document anyway, thinking his participation will hardly be noticed since he’ll be but one of many.

But Asaf’s troubles are only beginning. Two more students — Rachel (Madeline Weinstein), formerly of the Jewish Students Union, and Farid (Michael Khalid Karadsheh), a member of Students for Palestinian Justice — ask him to sponsor their new student organization to facilitate the campus appearance of a controversial Middle East expert. The reason they’ve selected Asaf, they inform him, is because he’s “young, Jewish, progressive and cool.” Before he can decide, Asaf is confronted by another student, Reuven (Ben Rosenfield, outstanding), a “PHD candidate in Jewish History and Jewish Studies” who angrily insists that the speaker should be barred from campus.

When Asaf does agree to sponsor the new group, he eventually discovers to his chagrin that they’ve expanded their previously stated goals to also call for the university’s boycotting and total divestment from Israel.” Oy, no wonder he feels the need to consult the university’s rabbi.

The playwright, to whom the central character bears a strong resemblance (they’ve both written plays about Europe during the Age of Enlightenment, among other things), throws in a few slight dramatic elements, including Asaf’s past romantic relationship with Nakia (Cherise Boothe), a community organizer allied with the various student groups, about which his wife is still jealous. But other than a mildly amusing anecdote about her having snapped at him for recoiling at shrimp being served with the heads still on, it doesn’t amount to much.