What’s in a ‘Name’?

'Rachel Corrie' hits N.Y. amid controversy

When “My Name Is Rachel Corrie” opens Off Broadway this week, the big question will be whether a play perceived to have a pro-Palestinian slant can draw audiences in New York.

Based on the writings of the young American activist killed in 2003 while protesting the demolition of Palestinian homes, the play will run in a city that’s home to the second-largest metropolitan Jewish populace in the world, behind Tel Aviv.

“If you don’t appeal to Jewish theatergoers, you’ve lost a huge chunk of your audience in New York,” says one producer not associated with the production.

But the play’s producers say it is a gross mischaracterization to call the play pro-Palestinian, and an oversimplification to assume Jewish audiences will automatically shun the production.

Early sales indicators for “Corrie” seem to dispel any worries about the show’s prospects: The production currently has the largest advance ever recorded at the Minetta Lane Theater. And, since it’s a solo show with a limited Off Broadway run, the financial risk involved isn’t enormous.

But still, given the play’s political content and the turbulent situation in the Middle East, producers are learning the benefits of treading softly.

Already the production has caused controversy. Last spring, the show’s original producer, London’s Royal Court Theater, and other people involved (including Alan Rickman, director and co-editor of the script) publicly accused Off Broadway’s New York Theater Workshop of yanking the play from its season due to concerns it would anger the Jewish community.

Even if the dispute was less about possible censorship than actually the result of a series of misunderstandings — as some insiders contend was the case — the squabble presented producers Dena Hammerstein and Pam Pariseau with a dilemma: How much should they acknowledge or embrace the controversy?

“We’ve chosen to ignore it,” Pariseau says.

“Neither Dena nor I had a political agenda with this piece,” she adds. “When you read the play, it’s so far from propaganda.”

Print advertisements aim to humanize Corrie with a photo of the activist as a young girl. In a radio spot, Rickman refers only elliptically to the controversy: “Come and see ‘My Name Is Rachel Corrie,’ and judge for yourself,” he says.

The ads also are bolstered by the glowing reviews the production earned both in its original run at the Court and in its West End transfer last spring. (Megan Dodds, the American thesp who played Corrie in London, reprises the role here.)

Still, there were those in the legit industry in New York who couldn’t get past the politics. Hammerstein says they encountered a few obstacles to assembling their team of producers and creatives.

“Some people chose not to work with us on this,” she says.

As one longtime legit agent explains: “You can’t be perceived as saying anything remotely anti-Israel in New York. People jump all over you.”

Some observers doubt “Rachel Corrie,” or perhaps any play, can do justice to the situation in the Middle East.

“There are very few plays that can capture that complexity,” says Emanuel Azenberg, the veteran legit producer who makes regular trips to Israel.

But many people are voicing skepticism based only on preconceived notions and not on the text itself. Which is exactly what Hammerstein and Pariseau are trying to remedy.

“It’s amazing to us that there are people who have strong opinions about the show who haven’t seen it,” Pariseau says.

Although perhaps they shouldn’t be much surprised: Such reactions are just a mark of the highly political subject confronted by the play, a subject about which many Americans — and many New Yorkers — hold deeply felt ideas and opinions.

Still, for an Off Broadway show with a typically modest Off Broadway ad budget, the attention the play has received is drawing audiences. “There are people who are coming based on hearing about the controversy,” Pariseau says.

Other theatergoers may well avoid any play that they believe voices an opposing political view to their own. But some New Yorkers, both Jewish and gentile, believe the Palestinian viewpoint on the conflict is underrepresented, and so will relish the opportunity to see that dialogue opened up onstage.”Many Jews care deeply about the human rights of both Israelis and Palestinians,” says Brian Walt, exec director of Rabbis for Human Rights. “I don’t know if this is a biased play or not, but I would go and find out.”

The show’s producers are encouraging debate with a series of post-show talkbacks that will include the participation of Rickman; script co-editor Katharine Viner, who is a writer and editor for London daily newspaper the Guardian; members of the Corrie family; and playwrights Tony Kushner and David Hare, among others.

Hammerstein and Pariseau are convinced that once people see “Corrie,” any political reservations they might have will disappear.

“It’s an emotional stance the show takes, not a political one,” says Hammerstein. “This girl just wanted to make the world a better place.”

Still, it will be a challenge to convince some Gothamites to get past the impression of anti-Zionism inspired by Corrie’s work as a supporter of the Palestinian cause. Take Ed Koch, the former New York mayor who has a long history with the city and its Jewish populace.

“I assume the people who are of the opinion that the show is anti-Israel propaganda won’t go,” he says. “I happen to be a Zionist. I wouldn’t go to see anti-Israel crap.”

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