It’s hard to imagine many dramatists getting access to a former President and First Lady while researching a production. But few have Lawrence Wright’s résumé: New Yorker staff writer, Pulitzer-winning author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, creator and star of the acclaimed one-man show My Trip to Al-Qaeda. So when Arena Stage commissioned Wright to pen Camp David, about the 1978 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel—premiering March 21 through May 4—he headed to Plains, Georgia, to interview Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter about the historic negotiations. (He also traveled to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Cairo to interview surviving members of the negotiating teams.)
In Plains, Wright says, “We sat in the den, and Carter was sitting on this chintz couch that matched the curtains. There were two exercise cycles in front of the television set, and some paintings he had done that reminded me of the illustrations in Goodnight Moon.” Carter’s White House communications director, Gerald Rafshoon, introduced Wright, and said he’d recently written a piece for the New Yorker about Scientology. According to Wright, Carter said, “Oh yes, I read that; I found it most intriguing,” and Rosalynn responded, “Since when do you read the New Yorker?”
The challenge with Camp David was whittling down a potential cast of hundreds of delegates. “It was very crowded,” Wright says. “Yet the truth was there were only three decision-makers and one very interesting person, Rosalynn. I thought if I could strip it down to the essentials, there’s a play.”
The four characters are Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin (Ron Rifkin), Jimmy Carter (Richard Thomas), and Rosalynn, who Wright says “had to make peace among the peacemakers.” The play recounts how over the course of 13 days, Carter, el-Sadat, and Begin negotiated the Camp David Accords at the presidential retreat north of Washington. The process was fraught with tension: Sadat and Begin reportedly refused to speak with each other directly, meaning President Carter had to relay messages. Says Wright, “Even on the last day, everything was in danger of falling apart.”
The author has been in the news most recently for his 2013 book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief. “Now there’s a play,” he jokes. The 448-page work was a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction. Wright shrugs off the challenges he and his publisher, Knopf, faced by reporting on the notoriously litigious institution. “There have been lots of threats, but I don’t think they’re going to follow through on any of that,” he says. “The church has plenty of other problems. I’m glad I was able to give voice to the experiences of so many people who’ve been mistreated.”
Wright wrote his first play, Cracker Jack, in 1984, followed by Sonny’s Last Shot in 2003. In 2006, after joking to the New Yorker theater critic John Lahr that he was so sick of terrorists he wanted to write a musical comedy, he scored a meeting with Lincoln Center artistic director André Bishop, who “rolled his eyes” at the musical idea but was intrigued by Wright’s idea for a one-man show based on his experiences reporting The Looming Tower.
My Trip to Al-Qaeda detailed his time among extremists in the Middle East. It ran off-Broadway and across the country and was made into an HBO documentary. “I tend to work in the realm of reality, so I feel more comfortable drawing my materials from real events,” says Wright , who lives in Austin, Texas. “People who are remarkable characters at critical turning points in their lives—that’s what plays are made of.”
Director Molly Smith estimates that Camp David has been through 24 drafts—“that’s a new play,” she says. But she also recalls being astonished when, after giving Wright notes following the first reading, he promised her a revision within an hour. “He came back and had a strong rewrite. I said, ‘How is this possible?’ He said, ‘All the work is in the research.’”
When told this story, Wright laughs. “She’s working with anguished dramatists. I’m a person who’s spent a lot of time on deadline.”
Camp David is at Arena Stage March 21 through May 4. Tickets ($55 and up) are available at Arena Stage’s website.
An edited version of this article appeared in the March 2014 issue of Washingtonian.