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Theater Review: Lawrence Wright's "The Human Scale"

Lawrence Wright's 2009 feature story for The New Yorker, "Captives," includes the kind of mind-blowing detail that makes the Israeli-Palestinian clashes in the Gaza strip jump off the page. It's as if Wright took the hard facts, numbers and dates of this confounding conflict and froze them in tableaux. He then illustrates these points with terrifying clarity to present graphic pictures of the horror of war: a café where dead people sit upright on barstools in front of full beers; a kid's TV show in which fuzzy animal characters are stabbed to death.

Wright's play, "The Human Scale," brings his almost painfully visceral journalism to the stage. Large swaths of his article, which is backed by varsity-level reporting, are the backbone for his nonfictional one-man show. In it, Wright tells the story of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier taken hostage in 2006, who has become one of the symbols of the Israeli cause. Shalit's captors have called for the release of 1,400 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit's freedom. This bitter equation, where one Israeli life sits in diametric opposition to over a thousand Palestinian lives, is the lens through which Wright examines both the history and the real-time devastation in Gaza. Distilling the conflict in this way would make it seem as though Wright is partisan, but the playwright uses writerly flourish and meticulous research to dispute those claims.

Dressed in a simple plaid shirt and jeans, he performs "The Human Scale" on a set that is no doubt familiar to him: a chair and a table piled up with thick books and manuscripts. As Wright delivers his lines, images of felled cities and mangled limbs of the dead are projected behind him. He sits quietly as videos depict activists vowing revenge, and exhausted fathers wailing for lost children.

"The Human Scale" shouldn't be compared to the glitz of Broadway or the off-beat fare of other downtown theater. The books that make up the play's spare set—Benny Morris' "1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War," the Goldberg Report, The Bible—are a clue to the play's mood and intention. It's easy to think, for example, that a file cabinet brimming with a reporter's meticulous notes and research might sit just offstage.

Though Wright is undoubtedly a wonderful journalist, he's the first to admit he is not an actor. The gentle Texas curl of his conversational speech sounds slightly stilted on stage, which is a testament to the barrage of dates and death tolls throughout the play's script. It's also clear from the tension on Wright's face during his monologue that he fears misrepresenting the conflict in Gaza by missing or misquoting a number.

Wright dances on the razor's edge of one of the most polarized, incendiary conflicts around, which makes it OK that the polish expected of live theater takes a back seat to his telling of an essential, important story.

As he walks into the darkness offstage at the end of the play, Wright leaves the audience with a thought-provoking question: "As long as the scale that measures the value of human lives is so out of balance, can there ever be peace?"

Hopefully, Wright's audiences will consider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with as much detail and dedication as he does.

Lawrence Wright performs "The Human Scale" through October 31 at the 3LD Art and Technology Center.