By Samuel L. Leiter
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 Juliet, Abie’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?
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 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.
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).