The Profane

Theater, Drama
2 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

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Theater review by Helen Shaw

It should be a kind gesture to tell you that Zayd Dohrn's family drama now at Playwrights Horizons has good intentions. It should soften the blow of telling you that the play itself is unengaging, that it suffers from lurches of illogic and a haphazard approach to character. But why start out with a wan “hooray” for Dohrn's motives? To praise his choice to write about the variety of experience among immigrant Muslim families? The Profane doesn't work, and it feels disingenuous to pat a play on the head right before giving it a resounding whack.

Dohrn is adapting the Guess Who's Coming to Dinner set-up: a young woman Emina (Tala Ashe) brings home her fiancé Sam (Babak Tafti), and the meeting brings her avowedly tolerant family up to the edge of liberal open-mindedness. In this iteration of the story, the girl comes from a secular immigrant family (the dad is loosely based on a amalgam of Edward Said and Salman Rushdie), while the boy comes from an observant Muslim home. It's a conventional scenario, but there's potential in it.

Dohrn blows his irony early: He shows us from the outset that the lettered liberals are actually reactionary boors. Emina's sister Aisa (Francis Benhamou) gets in poor Sam's face to talk about pubic waxing, and while her mother Naja (Heather Raffo) tries to be civil, Emina's father Raif (Ali Reza Farahnakian) is a dismissive and ugly host. In fact, Emina's family already seems convulsed on itself with internal hatreds, though Dohrn keeps giving them language that implies they are close. Why doesn't Emina know anything about her older sister? And why would a “daddy's girl” surprise her parents with a fiancé they've never met?

Worse is to come. In the second act, the two sets of parents meet—and Sam's folks are far from the fundamentalists Raif has been obsessing over. Sam's mother (Lanna Joffrey) and father (Ramsey Faragallah) keep a Quran in a place of honor on their bookshelf, but they are gentle and warm, openly delighted by a prospective daughter-in-law who doesn't wear the headscarf. They are also thinly written. Sam's parents are essentially sweet chess pieces, positioned so Raif can vent his unwarranted spleen on them. Arguments spring up that could have easily been avoided by prior conversations, the hallmark of a play that doesn't believe in its own offstage life.

The talented Kip Fagan directs, and his impulse to lean into the text's surface realism exacerbates the weak writing. Complicated, photo-perfect sets (designed by Takeshi Kata) of Raif and Naja's apartment and Sam's family home in White Plains, throw the fuzziness in the play's thinking into high relief. In a few spots, performances make up for the under-developed characters—Raffo's warm exhaustion is nice to see, for instance. But the mildest, least convincing performances belong to Emina and Raif, the characters the show should revolve around. Strangely, despite conceiving as The Profane as the showdown between the father and daughter, Dohrn never writes them a “necessary scene.” We leave them sulking and blind to the other's position. Such blindness may be the key to their characters—but the fact that we don't understand their stances, that one is on Dohrn.

Playwrights Horizons. By Zayd Dohrn. Directed by Kip Fagan. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 50mins. One intermission. Through Apr 30.

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By: Helen Shaw


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