Missed Connections

5. November, 2010 Theater No comments

Intersection for the Arts and company-in-residence Campo Santo are on a roll. Having debuted Chinaka Hodge’s marvelous Mirrors in Every Corner this February, they’re now introducing another impressive young emerging playwright with Sharif Abu-Hamdeh’s Habibi. This is no coincidence. The result of long development processes through Campo Santo’s new play lab, these plays constitute a sort of trilogy of world premieres by first-time playwrights, along with Dennis Kim’s New Tree Legends next fall.

All of that would simply be a nice thing that Intersection and Campo Santo are doing if the plays weren’t anything to write home about, but they’ve been terrific, in sharp productions with strong casts. Tautly directed by Omar Metwally (primarily an actor who’s worked with Campo Santo in the past), Habibi is certainly no exception.

Most of the play takes place in the kitchen/bedroom of a very small apartment (an effectively spartan set by Tanya Orellana), where a stern Palestianian-American father and his resentful son are constantly butting heads, although both often tell the audience in mid-scene asides how badly they feel about how they treat each other. The son, Tariq, is out of school, has lost a job and isn’t really looking for a new one, has quit his soccer team and is generally doing nothing with his life. Father Mohammed nags him about his constant tardiness and lack of motivation but also keeps trying to connect to Tariq and is constantly rebuffed. Their arguments almost always end with the ding of an egg timer, telling the always-punctual Mohammed that it’s time for him to go to work as a security guard.

Paul Santiago gives a deeply sympathetic, melancholy performance as Mohammed, particularly in his stiff attempts at tenderness, and the way he shies away when rebuffed like a punished dog. He’s tried to raise Tariq in a traditional way and provide a good life for him, and is keenly aware that neither has worked at all. There’s a wonderful childlike enthusiasm in the way he tries to please his son, kicking a soccer ball around and telling stories from the old country, but he always returns to a rigid authoritarianism whenever Tariq messes up, which is often. (Habibi, which Mohammed sometimes called Tariq, is an Arabic word for “beloved.”)

Aleph Ayin is a typical sullen and aimless teen as Tariq, so thoroughly Americanized that he blames living in America for his aimlessness. Ayin does a good job of capturing Tariq’s jumpiness around his dad, and always shining through is a sense that he’s a good kid deep down, even when he’s acting out atrociously.

Tariq has trouble sleeping, plagued by dreams in which his mother appears, who abandoned them years ago.  He’s angry all the time, frustrated with Mohammed’s awkward attempts to connect to him, but he also says he’s plagued by “constant, crushing guilt,” and it’s not altogether clear why. If he blames himself for his mother leaving, or for his adoptive parents finding him as a lost baby while fleeing from their homeland in the first place, that’s not really explored in the script. Maybe it’s just guilt for acting like a jerk all the time, which would be appropriate enough, but it’s not exactly unusual at his age.

Their scenes together are broken up with other recurring fragments, and it takes a while for it to be clear how all the pieces fit together. We keep returning to museum curator Nadia giving a rapt lecture on great art thefts, frequently interrupted by cell-phone calls from her dying father that increasingly drive her up the wall. (The “Pink Panther” ring tone is a nice touch.) The juxtaposition of images in the slides with what he’s saying is often hilarious. Nora El Samahy carries a marvelous mix of highly cultured poise (the plummy British accent helps) and infatuation with her work as Nadia. It’s amply evident in her lecture that she’s enthralled with the subject, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

The other stray element is Tariq being interrogated about something he claims to know nothing about, and he looks so desperately terrified that it’s hard not to believe him. His interrogators are unseen and unheard by the audience, and his responses at first are kept deliberately vague, because when he does finally utter a few key words about what it is that he doesn’t know anything about, it suddenly becomes obvious what all the pieces have to do with each other and what’s going to happen. Exactly why it happens, however, is still a refreshing and deeply affecting surprise.

Most of it does come together in the end, although there are a few pieces that have a little difficulty fitting into the puzzle. The timeline of the play is nonlinear, and there are a few encounters in the play that aren’t to be taken literally, most of them involving dream visitations by Tariq’s mother (El Samahy again, radiating unflappable contentment). So when Tariq drunkenly interrupts Nadia’s lecture, it’s hard to know whether or not it’s really happening, particularly because they’re so chummy when next they encounter each other–“next,” at least, in the apparent timeline of the play.

Parts of the 80-minute play could stand to be developed a little further–especially the ending, which feels a little rushed–but it’s a touching, humorous, and deeply eloquent exploration of family, the wonder of art, and most powerfully what is lost in the process of acculturation. And it’s beautifully performed, which certainly doesn’t hurt.

Through November 21
Intersection for the Arts
446 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #108 of 2010, attended October 18.

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