by Michael Bracken
Sometimes what we hate the most is what reminds us of ourselves. Perhaps that’s why Raif Almedin (Ali Reza Farahnakian) has such disdain for practicing Muslims. Born and raised in the Islamic tradition, he has nothing but contempt for its practitioners, bound by what he sees as the shackles of a repressive religion. And now, in Zayd Dohrn’s promising but ultimately disappointing drama, The Profane, at Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, his daughter is going to marry one.
Dohrn plots his dramatic tale with meticulous, sometimes too meticulous, detail. The first thing we see is Raif in the Almedins’ book-lined Greenwich Village apartment, drinking Scotch, a sure sign that he’s not a devout Muslim. When his daughter, Emina (Tala Ashe), and her fiancé, Sam Osman, (Babak Tafti) arrive, he pointedly ignores Sam’s hand extended to shake his.
So Dohrn makes it clear from the start: Raif isn’t a Muslim and he doesn’t want his daughter to marry one. He wants her to be free and independent, not marginalized by a culture that, he believes, stifles women. This theme is repeated again and again. Yet for all its potential for heavy-handedness, The Profane doesn’t seem simplistic or contrived, at least not initially. The clues Dohrn gives us are part and parcel of who his characters are, their prejudices woven into their fabric. We believe in them even when their shadings are not especially subtle.
In Act II, Emina’s family has been invited to dinner at the Osmans’ home in Westchester. Sam’s mother, Carmen (Lanna Joffrey), wearing a headscarf, is nervous about making a good impression. Dania (Francis Benhamou, who also plays Aisa), arranges flowers. She wears a head scarf and calls Carmen “Mom.” A nursing student, she says she is not ready to meet Emina’s family and will remain upstairs studying.
When Emina and family arrive, everyone’s on good behavior, as the two sets of parents meet for the first time in the spacious living room. Sam’s jovial father, Peter (Ramsey Faragallah), is the perfect host. Soon the entire party exits to the patio where they dine unseen. Naja comes back inside to use the bathroom, and she sees Dania sitting on the stairs. Dania excuses herself and runs away.
Enter World War III. First in Naja’s mind, then, once everyone’s returned from the patio, in pointed interrogations, and finally in a series of accusations fired across the room like missiles. Naja is on the warpath, and Raif is right behind her.
Naja’s reaction may jibe with her prejudice, but it’s not consistent with her style. Why doesn’t she just ask who Dania is (as Raif eventually does)? And what’s so earth-shattering about seeing a girl on a staircase anyway?
When Dania’s history (which I won’t spoil) is finally revealed, it seems like a strained, unlikely narrative. The play, carefully structured to lead to its climax and lovingly guided there by director Kip Fagan, sputters out and dies.
Despite Raif’s remark comparing it to Vito Corleone’s residence, the Osmans’ living room, thanks to scenic designer Takeshi Kata, is actually an attractive, in a suburban sort of way, study in white (curtains, French doors) with a cobalt sofa.
It’s noteworthy that Benhamou, in the two minor roles of bad girl Aisa and good girl Dania stands out the most among the generally solid cast. She’s the only one who exhibits range, which comes from playing two characters. None of the individual characters develops or changes or grows.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Through Sunday, April 30th at Playwtights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater (416 West 42nd Street). www.phnyc.org. 1 hour 45 minutes, with one intermission.