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Two Houses, Both Not Alike in Dignity: ‘The Profane’

April 10th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

'The Profane' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Profane’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Given today’s preoccupations with Islam, Zayd Dohrn couldn’t have hit upon a more succulent subject for a domestic dramedy than the one he uses in The Profane, his potentially button-pushing but ultimately unsatisfactory new play at Playwrights Horizons.

Taking his cue from works in which social, ethnic, or religious differences create conflict between the parents of conventionally mismatched lovers—think Romeo and JulietAbie’s Irish Rose, and Meet the Fockers—Dohrn focuses on a narrow demographic, Muslim immigrants. His goal is to show what might happen if a girl from a totally assimilated, liberal Muslim family were to become engaged to a boy from a conservative one.

It would be easy to imagine this situation happening within any religion whose adherents range from ultraliberal to fundamentalist. However, with today’s audiences interested in learning more about their Islamic neighbors, what could be riper for an examination of sectarian religious differences than a play about lovers from opposite sides of the Muslim spectrum?

'The Profane' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Profane’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Sorry to say, Dohrn’s play, which has some excellent scenes, sprightly humor, and lively dialogue, is superficial, formulaic, and burdened by a plot contrivance that will spin heads faster than Linda Blair’s.

In Act One we meet the Almedins at their book-lined, New York City home. Raif (Ali Reza Farahnakian) is an internationally known writer, whose novels, about the immigrant experience, are widely read in many colleges. Naja (Heather Raffo), an attractive blond in tight jeans, is a former dancer who once performed at Lincoln Center.

Raif, proud of belonging to the liberal, intellectual elite, is bitter, possibly because he’s suffering from writer’s block. Not only has he abandoned his faith, he despises those who follow its dictates as people who stone their daughters to death or behead people for their beliefs.

'The Profane' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Profane’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

The Almedin daughters, in their early 20s, are Aisa (Francis Benhamou, offbeat and funny), a lesbian and former dancer who tends bar, and Emina (Tala Ashe, pretty and sensitive), a college student. Emina has fallen in love with another student, Sam (Babak Tafti, good-looking and sincere), short for Basam, son of the Osman family; their intended nuptials precipitate the central crisis, apparent the minute Emina brings Sam home and introduces him to Raif, who ignores his proffered handshake.

Everything about the Almedins, including their clothing, drinking, snarky humor, colloquial expressions, and profanity, is pure sit-com American; despite Raif and Naja having immigrated when they were young adults and Raif boasting that he taught himself English, their accents are questionably red, white, and blue.

In Act Two, we meet the Osmans: Peter (Ramsey Faragallah) and Carmen (Lanna Joffey). The meeting between the families is at the Osmans new, White Plains home, a modestly attractive one that Raif, in a cheap joke at odds with what we see, snidely designates as the work of Vito Corleone’s decorator.

Peter Osman, who sells restaurant equipment, is a bearded, bearish man, gregarious to a fault in his attempt to please the Almedins; following Sam’s advice, he strives to avoid even the most innocuous religious references. Carmen, his reserved and cautious wife, dresses like a well-off suburban housewife but wears a hajib. The Osmans speak with (stagey) accents.

The contrast between the jovial, nonjudgmental Peter and the persistently edgy Raif couldn’t be sharper, reversing our expected reactions to who would be the more recalcitrant figure in the delicate dance between devotee and apostate. But Dohrn has so loaded the dice on Peter’s behalf that our discomfort with Raif’s behavior is practically forced upon us.

Peter is so reasonable it’s hard to believe he’s as pious as Raif suspects, while the liberal Raif rudely behaves like the actual fanatic. Despite his opportunities, Dohrn only rarely—as in some talk about arranged versus love marriages—suggests the kind of debate we’d really like to hear.

Worse, he concocts a melodramatically outlandish secret that’s exposed by having Naja notice a strange, hajib-wearing woman (Benhamou, in a distracting bit of doubling) in the house. This leads Raif to commit such an unforgivable act that the play loses whatever credibility it may have accumulated, while any lingering sympathy for the guy vanishes.

There are things to appreciate in The Profane, including Takeshi Kata’s substantial, well-appointed sets; Jessica Pabst’s character-defining costumes; and Matt Frey’s lighting, especially his bookcase effects. Kip Fagan’s direction is briskly paced but, with some performances merely skimming the sitcom surface and others (Faragallah, in particular) being so broad, he doesn’t resolve the uneasy tension between domestic comedy and idea-related drama.

“Disappointing” is an overused word in reviewing but when a play with such a potentially interesting subject comes up short it’s the handiest one to reach for.

The Profane
Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NY
Through April 30

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

 

 

 

 

 

15 Rockin’ Minutes with Sheri Sanders

April 10th, 2017 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

Sheri Sanders (Photo: Dirty Sugar Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

Sheri Sanders (Photo: Dirty Sugar Photography via The Broadway Blog.)

Life is full of choices but for Sheri Sanders, there’s no reason to choose. When it comes to performing, Sanders believes that you can combine legit trained musical theater styles with rock and pop genres. After a stage career, Sanders decided to start a program called ‘Rock the Audition.’ which has expanded from a book to classroom instruction.

On April 17 at downtown’s SubCulture, Sanders will perform a one-night concert, “Sheri Sanders is Legit,” which will celebrate the launch of her new ‘Rock the Audition’ online class. Many of her students have landed Broadway and national tours and, through her endless passion and energy, she’s managed to open brand new pathways that many never knew existed.

Sanders recently took time from her frenetic schedule to have a phone conversation with the Broadway Blog where she discussed her role as a coach and educator to countless teachers and budding performers.

Sheri Sanders (Photo: Michael Buonicontro via The Broadway Blog.)

Sheri Sanders (Photo: Michael Buonicontro via The Broadway Blog.)

This has become your primary source of income. How did you transfer from being a full-time performer to being a teacher? 
I have a musical theater background and I noticed a crisis in the musical theater community so I cornered the market where pop/rock music was concerned.  I combined my legit techniques with pop music because I always understood pop music. There are actually a lot of similarities between pop and musical theater and there is so much crossover. The way shows are written today is such that pop/rock is the new legit.  I now work with both teachers and students. I work with 16 different universities and have 30 private students.

You mentioned in one of you online classes that singers need to approach auditions in the mood or state that they are in. Isn’t it a performer’s job to ‘act’ in whatever way the role calls for? Can you elaborate? 
It is contrary in theory, but what is cool is that most pop music is not exclusively from shows. So if you choose a happy party song like “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” you can use that energy for the better if you’ve had a really bad day and sing the song as though you are ready to have fun. You have to use your current emotional and mental state to change your mind or attitude.

What happens if people come to you and obviously do not have a talent for singing? 
I never audition anyone for my classes.  Sometimes people who have desk jobs and have never pursued singing as a career but who can express themselves through song are the most valuable players in the room. In terms of talent, it’s never my job to tell people whether or not they have talent. It is more important to ask them what they believe in and to pursue that. My goal is to get people as connected to their mind, body, and spirit as I can. We all just root for each other because then, everybody grows.

Rock music is more than just a style. It’s a look and an attitude. You wouldn’t give a bookish librarian a Janis Joplin song, right? Is it right to approach music that fits the singer’s natural personality or can the singer manufacture that? 
You never want to give a song from a singer like Joplin to someone with a small voice. But, you want them to listen to her music, so they can grow more emotional and wild when they sing. That librarian could become a gutsy librarian. It’s important to listen to singers who have the same quality as you, but as important to listen to other singers. That way, your voice is more textured and interesting. You want to create a palate to paint with so that your voice has more variety.

What is the biggest misconception young performers have about the theater industry right now in terms of knowledge and preparation? 
If they are not properly educated, they often think that yelling and putting riffs in a song where it doesn’t belong makes them competitive. You have to look at the show and ask what the show requires and sing something that fits the aesthetic of the show.

How are you able to actually protect your voice when you are grunting and yelling, as many performers often do? 
Very few shows call for grunting and yelling and there is a way to sing emotionally without yelling. One of the things I’m most proud of is that people trust me because I’m never going to tell anyone that they are wrong. Instead, I’ll show them what they do know and take them over to this magical place that is really cool. That way, they take the experience I’ve taught them back to musical theater and they can live comfortably in both worlds.

“Sheri Sanders is Legit!  An Evening of Legit Musical Theatre”
Subculture
45 Bleecker Street, NYC
April 17, 8 p.m.

Advance Tickets are $20, $25 at the door.
Tickets are available at bit.ly/LEGITMT  or by calling 212-533-5470.

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.