A two-hander revenge play with a ripped from the headlines plot.
By Joel Benjamin
Revenge plays have a long history. From Medea through much of Shakespeare’s works and more recently, Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, evildoers have been killed and tormented by their victims. Add to this list Laith Nakli’s Shesh Yak at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in Greenwich Village. Shesh Yak’s contribution to the genre is its “ripped from the headlines” plotline which involves a young Syrian ex-pat, Jameel (Zarif Kabier) who hosts a fellow countryman, the older Haytham (Mr. Nakli) in his New York apartment.
The title refers to the Middle Eastern game of Backgammon in which the Shesh is the number 6 on the dice and the Yak stands for the number 1. During a seemingly friendly game of Backgammon the uttering of these two words catalyzes one character to drug and tie up the other. They reveal dreadful secrets from their not-so-distant pasts in civil war plagued Syria, spewing what amounts to a mini-history of that conflict. However, it takes far too long, even in this very short play, to get the climax, the revelation of exactly when, where and why the torture occurred. Tales of friends, family, small towns, big towns and a picture of a fractured society obfuscate the crux of the matter: one of these gentlemen kidnapped and tortured the other, leaving more than physical wounds.
Though written in English, it’s clear that Jameel and Haytham are supposed to be talking in their native Arabic because several passing comments are made about language. There is a formality in the language even when despair takes over. Young Jameel gets multiple calls from his mother who, like any clichéd mom, provides awkward comic relief, sometimes unintentionally. The best thing about Mr. Nakli’s play is that we Westerners get an intimate view of the horrors being perpetrated in Syria, but the play is constructed in such a paint-by-numbers fashions that virtually any conflict would have worked, from a concentration camp prisoner confronting a Nazi guard decades after the fact to a Black youth cornering the cop who abused him.
Once it’s established that the two characters are Middle Eastern, it’s not difficult to assume there will be a big dramatic confrontation. Even though the two men are changed by their honest revelations, the emotional payoff isn’t big.
The two actors work hard not to go overboard, but they are fighting a stop-and-go script. Mr. Kabier is a bit too giddy sometimes, coming across as soft rather than anxious. Mr. Nakli delivers his own lines with dignity, particularly his final speech. Director Bruce McCarty allows for a too slow pacing, something which may improve as the actors play their roles during the run of the show.
The plain apartment set by John McDermott has just enough Middle Eastern adornments to make us believe that Jameel is living there. Two video screens keep showing images of death and destruction. Lisa Renee Jordan’s costumes define the different social statuses of the pair.
Shesh Yak (January 15 – February 22,, 2015)
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
224 Waverly Pl., between Perry St. & West 11th St.
New York, NY
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or www.OvationTix.com
More Information: www.Rattlestick.org
Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission
*Photos: Sandra Coudert