‘Zealot’ at SCR continues playwright’s topical work

Playwright Theresa Rebeck wrote "Zealot."
(Courtesy South Coast Repertory)

Given how quickly circumstances change around the globe, Theresa Rebeck’s new play may evoke some unplanned responses when it premieres at South Coast Repertory.

But if it does, Rebeck has been there before — and so has Marc Masterson, the Costa Mesa theater’s artistic director.

In 2003, when Masterson held the same post for the Actors Theatre of Louisville, he premiered Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros’ “Omnium Gatherum,” which depicts a politically charged dinner party in the wake of 9/11. Around the time the play premiered, another watershed event took place in the world, and the effects were palpable in the theater.

“The meaning of the play for the audience at the time changed when we went to war in Iraq,” Masterson said. “It felt like the subject of the play shifted from being about Sept. 11 to being about the Iraq war. And you could feel in the audience, like the day after Bush declared war, you could feel all of the reactions in the play had changed. It was really interesting, because it was so topical.”

Perhaps the daily news will similarly rub off on “Zealot,” Rebeck’s latest effort, but the author expects it to spur discussion regardless. The play, which Masterson will direct, takes place shortly after the Arab Spring on the first day of the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.

At the beginning, the U.S. undersecretary of state — a woman — arrives seeking the help of the British consul in Mecca, hoping to quell signs of possible unrest. Soon, a protest turns violent in the street below, and the diplomats must decide how to respond when a female activist’s life becomes imperiled.

The play touches on gender and power, which Rebeck considers recurring themes in her work, and also on the rules — and sometimes questionable effectiveness — of diplomacy. There may be a new such example in the world next week, but the playwright offered one from recent history that she said helped inspire her subject matter.

“Remember when, before all this stuff was going on in the Middle East, Syria was using gas on its own citizens, and it was so challenging for everybody to get the diplomatic community to agree that they should issue a statement that they condemned it?” said Rebeck, who lives in Brooklyn. “And then, when they finally got everybody to agree to condemn that, there was this kind of rush of everybody congratulating each other, that this was a really big deal.

“Everybody was talking about how great it was that everybody condemned this, and I thought, ‘Sixty years after the Holocaust, we’re congratulating ourselves for condemning the fact that Syria was gassing its own citizens?’”

When viewers file in on “Zealot’s” opening night, they may have something else fresh on their minds: the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, who survived a shooting attack by the Taliban and has campaigned for female education. (“God love her,” Rebeck said.)

In any case, the play has shown promising signs at SCR. Masterson said it drew a strong reaction in this spring’s Pacific Playwrights Festival, where actors performed a staged reading.

Rebeck, who trimmed about seven pages from “Zealot” after the spring festival, tested a play there in 2000. She goes back even further with Masterson, who worked on four of her plays, including two world premieres, with the Louisville theater. He’s due another play from her as well: Around the time it accepted “Zealot,” SCR commissioned a new work from Rebeck, who has also written for the screen and television and recently created the NBC series “Smash.”

“That’s one of the things I admire about Theresa Rebeck,” Masterson said. “She’s got a wide range of expression. She’s also a novelist. She’s written in many different mediums and successfully in many different mediums, and within the theater, she’s written boulevard comedy. She’s written social satire. She’s written political pieces. I mean, they’re very different kinds of plays.”

If You Go

What: “Zealot”

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Previews Friday through Oct. 23; opening night Oct. 24 (invitation only); regular performances Oct. 25 through Nov. 16

Cost: Starts at $22

Information: (714) 708-5555 or