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Theater review by Helen Shaw
The first half-hour of Heather Raffo’s family drama Noura is lovely. We’re met with warmth: Andrew Lieberman’s curving cork-and-leather set glows behind a Christmas tree ablaze with lights, and the text also starts with a sense of vivacity and movement. In its expositional phase, Noura is a handsome portrait of a happy family, charmingly realized by director Joanna Settle and complete with delicate dramaturgical shading—we can quickly tell there's trouble hidden somewhere. Why does Tareq (the superb Nabil Elouahabi) have to work a graveyard shift on Christmas Eve, when it’s obvious he was once an important surgeon? Why does Noura (played by Raffo) litter the house with architectural drawings, while murmuring about the family's insularity? These are Iraqi Christians in New York, content and safe as recently minted U.S. citizens, yet full of sadness over everything they’ve left behind.
Raffo is at her best when she’s in this preparatory phase. She does a good job of introducing the couple’s son Yazen (Liam Campora) and their dear family friend Rafa’a (Matthew David), a Muslim she’s known since her childhood in Mosul, and we learn a lot about the play’s ideas about community from the actors’ ease around one another. (When Rafa’a hurries out after a fraught conversation, for instance, he gives Noura’s shoulder a hard shove—the way two lions show love, or two old friends.) But when the actual plot kicks in, Noura becomes both predictable and, whenever Raffo gives herself a speech, strangely overwritten. A refugee (Dahlia Azama) arrives, which throws the group into a tizzy, and the play’s melodramatic secret-will-out structure sits uncomfortably with the carefully crafted realism of the production. Raffo has taken inspiration from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, itself indebted to the 19th century's “well-made play” clichés. Raffo gets caught up in that machinery, and those heavy old gears grind even her very fine characterizations into dust.
Playwrights Horizons (Off Broadway). By Heather Raffo. Directed by Joanna Settle. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.