Immigrant angst: The sorrow and the comedy

"Language Rooms' at the Wilma (1st review)

4 minute read
Fernandez, Greene: The issue is wrinkles.
Fernandez, Greene: The issue is wrinkles.
Assimilation sucks the blood of aspiration. A better life will cost more than you know. These are some of the lessons of Yussef El Guindi's fierce, comic fantasy, Language Rooms. So many immigrants feel the tugs of past, the stasis of going forward, the need to belong— but where?

El Guindi's new play tackles many realities of Arab"“American life without overtly stating politics. The tensions are there. How could they not be? After 9/11, every Muslim in America feels the stings.

El Guindi, born in Egypt and now living in Seattle, became a U.S. citizen in 1986. He's a first generation "who tries to write from the point of view of the second generation."

This is a critical point. The U.S. is built on second and third generations some of whom barely speak the language of their Irish, Italian, Korean or Chinese grandparents. How many of our parents laughed at themselves, didn't want us to be mocked, didn't want us to talk with accents?

Language Rooms ambitiously attempts to make black comedy— even fantasy— from issues that are still extremely close to the bone. In his Back of Throat (2005), El Guindi implicated The Patriot Act, but Language Rooms, his 15th play, is less overt.

Shades of Guantánamo

The time is now, the place undisclosed. Shades of Guantánamo here"“ pastel. The torture: hoods for the prisoners, verbal abuse, milk by injection (Middle Easterners are lactose intolerant).

Ahmed and Nasser, Arab-American friends, are translators for a mysterious government agency. Ahmed (Sevan Greene) is confused and under suspicion for his interview techniques and his lone duck behavior. (He avoids the Super Bowl party, among other social faux pas.) His best bud, Nasser (J. Paul Nicholas) could be protecting him or competing for the favor of their boss, Kevin (played by Peter Jay Fernandez).

Kevin, the bureaucrat with the egregious smile, is compelling— one of those VPs who tells you to "Relax: Take it easy!" as he picks your thoughts and feelings. "Think of me as family," he says. You know that danger's in the air. A nice touch: Kevin ironing his suit shirt. No wrinkles for Kevin.

Ahmed, by contrast, is one wrinkle after another, a slouch who can't figure out his place in the workplace or in the world. Sevan Greene doesn't quite pull him off. He doesn't fully inhabit Ahmed until he uses his anger and self-hate remarkably in the second act.

Figuring himself out

The playwright's wit is considerable; laughter was consistent during the first half on opening night. But Language Rooms would be funnier if it moved faster. The first act lumbers; despite its convincing dialogue, structure weighs it down.

In the first, Greene seems only partly engaged"“ which may be the point: Ahmed can't figure himself out, and he can't admit he doesn't really know Arabic that well. He does suspect that his translations aren't getting through the way his buddy is vetting them. Ahmed knows something's going on but his way of expressing this is lackluster.

The first act's back-and-forth set ups are too predictable. The writing for Kevin, the faux father figure, and Samri, the authentic father, makes their characters more interesting than Ahmed, the central figure.

The plot is the problem here. It's not quite creative enough to suggest over the top fantasy and just mannered enough to cue us to what's next. El Guindi's writing is original, and he gives these characters good thoughts. It wouldn't take much to fix the structure.

Father-son poignance

But in the second act the writing rings true. Nasser Faris (as Samri, Ahmed's father) delivers moments of tremendous father-son poignance. There's nothing like anger to show us whom we love. This shift turns Language Rooms from ferocious comic fantasy into stirring drama.

Whatever the playwright's intention, Ola Maslik's dental-bright set complements El Guindi's sardonic humor with Jorge Coisineau's smart sound design.

Blanka Zizka's direction catches the comedy and the sorrow; only the quicksilver pace and sardonic tone is sometimes missing. The final scene goes on so long it risks pathos. The fantasy shock of it would benefit from swiftness rather than nostalgia.♦

To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.
To read another review by Jonathan M. Stein, click here.

What, When, Where

Language Rooms. By Yussef El Guindi; directed by Blanka Zizka (world premiere). Through April 4, 2010 at Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. (at Spruce). (215) 546-7824 or

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