Wednesday, September 14, 2011
As I looked around the lobby at The Flea before the house opened for the Play Company's production of Jonas Hassen Khemri's hit play, I suspected I was in trouble. 75% of the audience looked under 30 and very downtown. My qualms proved to be justified. Rarely have I seen such a generational divide in an audience. The under-30's whooped and hollered at lines that barely drew a chuckle from me. A startling coup de theatre about five minutes into the play clearly caused less angst among the young people near me, who quickly recovered from the shock. Too bad this was the most interesting moment in the play, at least for me. The playwright, whose father is Tunisian and whose mother is Swedish, has written a shaggy-dog story/farce/cautionary tale revolving around issues of Middle Eastern identity in Western society. It has played to packed houses in Europe and had a well-received brief run in New York last winter. In it, the mysterious name Abulkasem becomes a repository of attitudes toward the exotic and the foreign. The appealing cast of four (Francis Benhamou, Nick Choksi, Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte and Bobby Moreno) excel at playing multiple roles. The play's title had no clear connection to anything that transpired. Some of the loosely linked scenes are much better than others. One scene about a biased translator mistranslating the words of a migrant worker starts strong, but goes on too long. Another scene about pretentious drama students totally misfires. Two scenes that give his and her versions of an encounter in a bar are amusing, but not closely tied to the play's theme. The device of introducing a panel of "experts" to bloviate about a mysterious possible terrorist seemed tired. Furthermore, the director, Erica Schmidt, was guilty of one of the worst sins on my list of theatrical pet peeves -- shining bright lights in the audience's eyes. Although I salute the Play Company for translating and staging international plays that might not make it to New York, in this case I admired the result more than I enjoyed it. Running time: 90 minutes without intermission.