When Josh Radnor was a teenager, he took a trip to Israel with his school. One of the places they visited was the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. “I had this very emotional response,” he recalls of being at that holy site. “Being there [in Israel] for six weeks really shifted something for me in terms of my identity, my feeling of connection with the religion, the history, and the culture.” After feeling like a minority while growing up in Ohio, being in Israel allowed Radnor to feel more in touch with his Jewish identity.
“It was a strange and beautiful thing to realize, like, wow, the majority of people here are Jewish,” he recalls of how he felt at the time.
Though lately, the actor (who rose to fame playing Ted Mosby in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother) has been having some complicated feelings around his Jewishness. And he’s channeling it in his newest project: the play The Ally by Itamar Moses, running Off-Broadway at the Public Theater February 15–March 10.
There, Radnor plays a university professor named Asaf, who is asked to sign a petition decrying police brutality against Black people. The petition also cites other examples of oppression. In particular, it condemns Israel, saying the country is committing “genocide” against the Palestinian people. This throws Asaf into a personal crisis—he wants to be a good ally and he self-identifies as an atheist, but his parents are from Israel.
You might think the play was written in reaction to the Hamas attacks on October 7, 2023, and Israel’s retaliation in Gaza. But Radnor had been working on it with Moses since 2022, and the play is explicitly set before the events of October 7.
Moses was inspired to write The Ally around five years ago. “There seemed to be a fissure on the political left between people who were otherwise largely aligned, having to do with questions of Israel-Palestine,” the playwright explains over email. “As a Jew, on the left, with ties to Israel—I also felt this fissure inside myself…Writing the play was a process of diving all the way down that rabbit hole to see where it led. If all this adds up to a question: ‘What happens when two of a person's unconscious tribalisms are in conflict with one another?’”
It’s not an easy topic to dive into, especially right now. For Moses, the last few months have turned the “fissures” he originally noticed into “potential chasms.” And it’s led to new questions, including, as he puts it: “How do we prevent people who agree on things like democracy and humanistic values from being divided, at a time when we need those people united more than ever?”
Not to mention, the team behind The Ally are juggling this play on top of their other projects. Radnor just released his newest album, Eulogy Vol 1, with an accompanying tour. Moses is working on a new musical at the same time, Dead Outlaw with his Band’s Visit collaborator David Yazbeck (that show will also go up in February). The Ally’s director Lila Neugebauer just finished directing Appropriate on Broadway and she’s going to direct Uncle Vanya at Lincoln Center next.
To Radnor, The Alley was something he needed to do. He’s so dedicated to this venture, in fact, that he and his fiancée chose their wedding date (January 6) so Radnor could get back in time for rehearsals. And as he’s been getting new pages and re-writes from Moses, and following the news, the project has only felt more necessary. “I am anguished about this situation,” Radnor says of the ongoing war in Gaza. “And I feel the best thing I can do for myself...is to actually do this play. There’s no tweet thread I could write that would be as comprehensive and as anguished and as fact-based as what Itamar has written. I’m just going to throw myself into this thing, and hope that it generates a lot of dialogue and further questions.”
In speaking of the play, and his own identity, Radnor chooses his words slowly and carefully (contrary to what many fans expect, he is not Ted Mosby—Radnor is more thoughtful, less impulsive). He will sometimes close his eyes or look off in the distance when speaking. He tends to be philosophical, easily quoting scholars and other artists from memory. “Alex Edelman says: It's like an email list you can’t unsubscribe from,” Radnor explains when talking about Jewishness. “It's both a burden and a blessing.” And then at the end of the thought, he’ll come back and look at your eyes with a sheepish smile.
This meditative quality reflects how Radnor has taken his post-How I Met Your Mother career: slowly and deliberately. He’s directed films. He’s done plays (he even challenged himself by doing Little Shop of Horrors at the Kennedy Center, playing Seymour). He’s become a singer-songwriter, both as a solo artist and half of the duo Radnor & Lee (with Ben Lee). His new album Eulogy gives audiences a peek into his current mindset, as he accepts being middle aged and learns to let go of some personal baggage:
I get stopped in airports ‘cause I played an architect
Some people think that’s who I am
It used to drive me crazy and some days it still does
But I’m learning how not to give a damn
What do they think of me
To Radnor, this phase of his life—where he can say no to work that doesn’t grab him, and say yes to the passion projects—is partially because of his “patron” How I Met Your Mother. It gave him a taste of fame and a steady income stream. “I'm always trying to do work that feels good to my soul,” he explains of his mindset these days. “I don't even know if I've taken a role just for the money. There has to be something more compelling for me to do. Because it takes a lot out of you to act in something—whether it's on camera or in the theatre, the cost is high. So I have to feel like it's something that is really nourishing at the soul level.”
Moses says this deliberate approach reflects itself in the rehearsal room, where Radnor is the kind of actor who will immerse himself in the words. But “when he does have a question or is struggling, you know it's worth taking seriously,” Moses says. “And he's unfailingly curious and cares a ton, which is especially helpful with subject matter like this.”
Curiosity is important with The Ally, which is diverse in its conversations. Asaf is Jewish. And he spends the play in dialogue with characters who are Black, Palestinian, and Asian. There is also a character who is a Zionist. All are able to say, and debate, their piece. The Ally addresses antisemitism. But it also addresses anti-Blackness, Islamophobia, the model minority myth—all the things that force people to retreat into their own camps. But it also asks how progressives can show up for each other. That’s not a question that the play has an answer to, and neither does Radnor.
“I think bad theatre is: We have a point of view, and we want you to believe it by the time you leave here,” he says. “I mistrust things like that, that have some sort of ideological agenda. And I think this [play] is the antidote to that. This is [Asaf] saying, ‘I see all sides of this. And I also feel hurt and abandoned and scared. And I want people to stand with me as I have tried to stand with other people.’ And then he thinks, ‘Well, maybe I haven't stood with other people as ferociously as I could have. And how much should I be risking myself, my own safety?’ It just asks all the right questions.”
Though Radnor has been working hard at not worrying about people think, he admits he’s nervous about how audiences will respond to The Ally. But he is confident in the theatre’s ability to add nuance and humanity to a conversation that has become increasingly polarizing. And it doesn’t provide easy answers. If you’re hoping to watch the play and get a sense of who is “right” in the Israel-Palestine debate, or what the creators think about it—you’ll be left disappointed. That particular conflict is too complex to be summed up in two hours on a stage.
“The genius of the theatre is it can hold multiple points of view. David Foster Wallace says, ‘We're all marooned in our own skulls.’ So I think any thing we can do to step outside and just even consider, for a little bit, what it must be like to be someone else,” he says, pausing, deliberating, before continuing. “I think the problem is to look at this situation—and many kinds of intractable geopolitical, socio-economic situations—as easy or overly simplified. I think that’s dangerous. So I like to be a part of a play that actually honors the complexity and honors the nuance of what this all is.”
He then adds, resolutely, making eye contact: “I’m not scared of the responsibility of playing this role...It does scare me. But it’s the good kind of fear.”