El Guindi’s show has a rocky start, but eventually explores America’s racial divide.
Rarely can a play begin so disappointingly and still turn out as well as Yussef El Guindi’s Language Rooms, which makes its world premiere at the Wilma Theater.
The first hour of El Guindi’s black comedy is unfunny and preposterous. The second half is a scintillating and satirical journey into the shadowy regions of the Patriot Act.
Set at a secret interrogation center responsible for extracting information from terrorist suspects, the play focuses on an Arab translator named Ahmed (Sevan Greene). To an outsider, Ahmed appears to be living the American dream, a young immigrant who has secured an important (albeit secret) position in the United States government. As an Arab-speaking Muslim, Ahmed isn’t trusted by his boss, Kevin, (an eerie Peter Jay Fernandez) who chastises the young translator for not attending the office Super Bowl party. In Kevin’s view, the Super Bowl incident (along with the fact that Ahmed avoids the communal shower) reinforces his suspicions that Ahmed isn’t fully devoted to their mission of protecting Americans at all costs.
It’s an interesting scenario and director Blanka Zizka’s cast is more than capable, but the play goes nowhere until a new suspect suddenly arrives for interrogation. Linked to a mysterious sheik that the security agency has been tracking, the high-profile suspect gives Ahmed the chance to again prove his loyalty to his doubtful boss. But at what cost?
It would be unfair to reveal the exact identity of the suspect, but his appearance raises the stakes for Ahmed and effectively solidifies El Guindi’s exploration of family, ethnicity and national identity, topics the playwright previously investigated in his unrestrained satire Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes , which premiered last season in a riotous production from Philadelphia’s InterAct Theater Company.
Blurring reality and illusion, El Guindi’s play keeps us off-balance. Zizka’s production (which features an impressively ambiguous scenic design by Ola Maslik) effectively captures the sense of unease that infects every scene in the play (even a supposedly relaxing trip by Ahmed to a message therapist is filled with anxiety).
Greene and J. Paul Nicholas (who plays a fellow Arab translator) excellently communicate the proper tone of jittery confusion. However, the play’s meatiest role belongs to Fernandez. A devilish presence, Kevin fosters an atmosphere of false trust and feigned concern. Whether stripping to his underwear for an office chat or holding hands with the two translators in an act of bonding, Fernandez’s Kevin is charming and more than a little scary.
“Everything about your life is their business,” Ahmed tells the bewildered suspect. But it isn’t just terrorists who are being watched. In this chilling play, everyone is both a potential suspect and a potential informer.
At the end of Language Rooms, Ahmed sits in a locked cube while wearing a sensory deprivation suit. Cut off from his family and shunned by his co-workers, he finds himself ostracized in a nation that once prided itself on welcoming the world to its shores.
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