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John Feffer’s “The Pundit” Draws on a Subject He Knows Well

The think-tanker’s new play, opening Friday at the Capital Fringe Festival, is based on his experiences as a talking head in Washington.

John Feffer as pundit Peter Peters in “The Pundit.” Photograph by Kia Rogers.

John Feffer doesn’t believe in offices.

One might assume he’s not much for sleep either, given his current workload, but he insists he enjoys a good snooze. It’s staying out of an office that allows him to be a co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies while also having written a novel, several nonfiction books, and countless articles—not to mention his new play, The Pundit, which debuts Friday at the 2012 Capital Fringe Festival.

The show, his fourth, should hit home with many Washingtonians. It’s about a political pundit named Peter Peters who finds himself in a news studio, preparing to discuss Syria. At the last minute, the topic is changed to the semi-fictional Khazaria (an extinct, nomadic Turkish tribe sometimes seen in Jewish lore as the lost tribe of Israel). The pundit, knowing nothing of the place, fakes it. Someone from Khazaria then calls upon Peters for a favor, and that’s when the sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, always satirical tale takes off.

Feffer, who also stars in the play, says the idea came from his personal experiences in Washington. Though he’s worked as a freelance journalist for years, offering opinions and articles on various topics in which he claims expertise (Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Korea), his job at the IPS sometimes forces him to sometimes discuss on air subjects that “push [him] beyond expertise.”

“I’m not going to pretend I know anything about Afghan culture or Iraqi culture,” he says, but then points out he can’t not discuss them either, if asked. “Who ever says [‘I don’t know’] on the air? It’d be nice … but also probably your last interview.”

After finding himself in that exact position a few times, he decided to write a play attacking what he calls a “culture of assumed omniscience.” The play focuses heavily on politics and the news cycle in DC, where he says professionals have an arrogant “New York mentality.” The problem in his eyes is that this very attitude bleeds into foreign policy.

“The Beltway mentality is scornful of opinions in Northern Virginia, for God’s sake,” he says. “Of course they’re going to be scornful of opinions in [foreign countries].”

This is Feffer’s first play with a cast—his first three were solo shows—and he says he’s enjoyed working with others and figuring out that “acting is all about listening.” Having company on stage also helps takes some of the pressure off, since his nerves have been an obstacle in the past.

His first play, Krapp’s Last Power Point, debuted at the 2009 Capital Fringe Fest, where he found himself petrified at the idea of going out onstage for his first show. Of course, that was before he realized he’d made a serendipitous mistake. “I walked out and I didn’t see the audience,” he says. “I wasn’t wearing glasses.”

Feffer made that debut when he was in his forties, though he’d wanted to be a playwright since college. After graduating, he attempted to make a go of it, but after watching a few scripts wither and die in directors’ mailboxes while awaiting a response that never came, he chose the more stable path of journalism and international affairs. That is, until 2009. He swore to his wife he’d never be involved with another play after that—but thankfully, like so many other pundits, he turned out to be wrong.

The Pundit debuts Friday at the Goethe-Institut as part of the Capital Fringe Festival. Tickets ($17 plus $5 for the one-time purchase of a Fringe button) are available via Capital Fringe’s website.

  • Swagerdave

    I've heard Noam Chomsky qualify his replies to questions by stating what he doesn't know, but then, one almost never sees him in any prime time media. I sincerely doubt viewers would decry such candor. It's almost certainly the programmers who wouldn't abide such honesty.

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