Lawrence Wright’s Camp David is an “important” play, but not a well-written one. In 90 minutes it recreates the 13 days of vein-bulged negotiations that led to the historic Camp David Accords. On September 17, 1978, Menachem Begin, the prime minister of Israel, and Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, signed “framework arguments” that resulted in the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Both won Nobel Prizes.
President Jimmy Carter invited the two heads of state to the wooded, lock-down secure presidential retreat in Maryland. He mediated negotiations. According to Wright, Rosalynn Carter played an important role as well.
Begin: fearless, pinpoint strict, immobile; Sadat, suave, unflappable, courageous (risked his life in 1977 to become the first Arab leader to visit the Jewish state).
At stake are territories, allegiances, and possibly nuclear war — not to mention world opinion. And not just for Begin and Sadat. Carter almost scraped bottom in the polls by September. He needed something positive.
Even though clouds gather — stony recalcitrance, threatened walkouts, even a possible assassination — Camp David has a clear-skies inevitability. Somehow the Carters will find a way to save the day and the world.
The script gets the grit of the negotiations, but it, and Molly Smith’s amicable direction, betray a commanding urge to be accessible and to entertain. Begin (a taut Ned Eisenberg) and Sadat (smoothly powerful Khaled Nabawy) give pared-down portraits with few offensive characteristics. Thus, when Jimmy Carter tells Rosalynn that Begin drives him nuts and that he’s dealing with “psychos,” you wonder what he’s talking about. Begin and Sadat are clearly adamant, but psychotic?
That's the play’s formula: three-way debates punctuated with interludes. The latter are a sitcom, “The Carters,” in which the president and First Lady not only let their hair down, they all but drop character: at one point she announces they’re broke, might have to sell the ancestral peanut farm — oh, well, we’ll get by — hardy-har; at another, someone might assassinate Sadat. When they hear the news, Jimmy and Rosalynn break into laughter (supposedly from the madness of the situation). Few actors on Earth could justify the reaction. Richard Thomas (Jimmy) and Hallie Foote (Rosalynn) aren’t among them.
Thomas gives Carter a rising through-line, from gentle mediator to fire-breathing world-power leader, and Foote, though her voice could be smokier, makes Rosalynn an interloping homespun sage. The cast has been directed as if for a TV miniseries: only a few personal glitches and nary an ounce of nuance.
The play is best with what’s at stake: tensions in the Middle East, which Carter may not have fully understood before the talks, and the intricate nature of a treaty between Israel and Egypt, like a Rubik’s cube with missing squares.
Wright wrote the play and followed it with a book, 13 Days in September, where he fills in gaps and adds the 100 or so other people at Camp David (including Sadat’s eccentric advisor Hassan el-Tohamy, who swore he could tame lions and time-travel). The book, without Camp David’s calculated stern face/happy face formula, is much better.
Playing through June 19