Utkarsh Ambudkar, Heidi Armbruster, Anitha Gandhi, Adam Green
You’ll be familiar with the kind of play the Playwrights Realm is currently serving up at the Cherry Lane Studio: Playwright Anna Ziegler has taken two unlikely subjects – one a Jewish teacher named Dov and the other his Muslim student Ali – and thrown them together into a turbulent school environment, where they’re left to butt heads in the hopes of finding an adequate dramatic solution to their cross-cultural woes, some sort of middle ground to bridge the divide.
Beginning with some particularly earnest narration from Ali’s sister Sameh, there’s immediately trouble with Ziegler’s play.
As in many frustrating contemporary plays, earnest narration too often takes the place of dramatic action, and – though the mystery of Sameh’s situation sets up a nice sense of conflict and mystery that builds throughout the story – I was left wishing we could see more of her family’s struggle through scenes rather than hearing her character recount details from her past.
It doesn’t help that Anitha Gandhi seems flat in the role, mistaking doe-eyed wonderment for genuine feeling.
As Dov and Ali respectively Adam Green and Utkarsh Ambudkar are fine without bringing much panache to their roles. Ambudkar, who was particularly impressive in Rajiv Joseph’s Animals Out of Paper last season, here plays a far more buttoned-up character and seems to have difficulty breaking out when his role requires real fervor. Green’s is perhaps the most sensitive portrayal here. His troubled relationship with his shiksa girlfriend, Sonya (Heidi Armbruster), is the most interesting in the play; it’s certainly the most complicated.
In theory, I applaud Ziegler’s attempt at bringing together Jewish and Muslim themes. Religious fundamentalism – or what comes to be categorized as fundamentalism, whether rightly or wrongly – is a topic ripe for dramatic exploration. And at times the conversations here are probing and insightful. Particularly arguments over certainly and doubt play a key role in fleshing out what are Ziegler’s thematic concerns when addressing these two very different characters.
However, if Ziegler’s Dov and Ali isn’t a particularly bad play per se, it suffers nevertheless from a few dramatic pitfalls. Besides for Sameh’s narration, there’s a tendency to repeat the major themes at hand. Dov’s fights with Ali – over Ali’s father or The Lord of the Flies – seem to curl up on themselves, rarely leading anywhere until the climax of the play, which comes too suddenly and seems somewhat unearned. The more we learn about Ali’s sister, the more we wish she were a full-bodied character, particularly as her storyline gains momentum in the play’s second half.
For its faults, however, there’s a well-meaning quality to Katherine Kovner’s competently-directed production. Clean scenic design from Steven C. Kemp keeps the action moving with minimal set changes. Pulling white sheets taut in the space behind the dramatic action proves a good way to accentuate the supposed lightness of the characters’ faith, allowing their weighty arguments a deceptively gentle backdrop.
Despite the good intentions of all involved, however, there’s a sense that Dov and Ali never really takes shape as a compelling, splintering play – which seems to be its aim. There are plenty of ingredients here for a truly probing examination of faith in America if only Ziegler would have taken a more head-on approach.