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Theatre in Review: The Profane (Playwrights Horizons)/CasablancaBox (HERE)

Top: Ali Reza Farahnakian, Babak Tafti. Photo: Joan Marcus. Bottom: Catherine Gowl, Roger Casey. Photo Benjamin Heller.

In The Profane, the playwright Zayd Dohrn reinvents a standard meet-the-parents plot in order to probe the uneasy peace shared by Muslim-Americans in contemporary America; the results are so absorbing -- and Dohrn is so deft at keeping us in suspense -- that one wishes he had kept going. Instead, he calls for a slow fade to black just when things are getting good. The Profane is simultaneously one of the most interesting and frustrating new plays to open in the last several weeks.

When we first meet Raif Almedin, a novelist living in Manhattan, he is reading one of his published works -- and is struggling not to tear the volume in half. His specialty is stories of the immigrant experience, but, in recent years, his creative well has run dry. Both he and his wife, Naja, a former dancer, were born in an unnamed country that could be Iran, Iraq, or Turkey, among others, and both came here at an early age. They live an intellectual version of the American dream, hosting salons filled with artists and intellectuals. Their elder daughter, Aisa, a modern dancer and semi-closeted lesbian, still lives at home, an arrangement that is inherently stressful. Then their younger daughter, Emina, trumps Aisa by showing up with her new boyfriend, Sam, the scion of a family with a similar heritage -- but also religiously observant.

As Emina tries to win Raif's approval, and as it becomes clear that Sam and Emina are planning on marrying, Dohrn provides plenty of crackling dialogue. Emina, dismissing her sister's gig as a bartender in Brooklyn, snipes, "That's not a job. That's an affectation." Naja, trying to calm her husband, tells him to watch television, perhaps CNN. "CNN makes me want to shoot myself," he replies (getting the biggest laugh of the evening). Raif, irritated when Emina points out that he left his home country voluntarily, retorts, "You can be barred from your home country by political realities on the ground. Religious fundamentalism. A hostility to free thought." Emina, fed up, snaps, "Your 'homeland' is Greenwich Village!"

Dohrn ends the first act on a teasing note, with Sam confessing to Emina that he has kept an enormous family secret from her. The second act switches to the home of the Osmans, Sam's family -- the set designer, Takeshi Kata, somehow finds room in Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theatre for the Almedins' book -- and painting-filled Village apartment and the Osmans' spacious, all-white living room in White Plains -- where preparations are being made for the first meeting of the two families. The Osmans include Peter, the outgoing, garrulous patriarch, and Carmen, his pious, disapproving wife. Also on hand is Dania, a young nursing student whose precise role is not defined and who intends to remain upstairs during the event. Once again, the laughs come easily -- looking around, Raif mutters, "Great! They hired Vito Corleone's decorator" -- but now they are seasoned liberally with suspense. What is Sam's secret? What is Dania doing there? How will Raif and Peter handle each other?

The bombshell, when it finally drops, is pretty spectacular; it's enough to reorient one's view of each of the Osmans, but at this point The Profane is on a fast track to its conclusion. The situation, as presented, wants further exploration, as do the reactions of Raif and Naja. There are other facets of the plot that would benefit from deeper examination -- most notably the fact that Sam and Emina are on different tracks: She is drawn to his family's life of piety even as he is trying to shake it off. Dohrn has planted a great deal of drama in his play, but he ignites only a portion of it. The Profane is the rare play that could benefit from a longer running time.

Fortunately, Kip Fagan's direction keeps thing fast, funny, and tense, aided by a cast alive to the play's many nuances. Ali Reza Farahnakian captures Raif's self-lacerating nature and his nagging fear that his dedication to the life of the mind is no longer rewarding. Tala Ashe nails Emina's slightly slippery way of handling her parents. Babak Tafti's Sam is a study in quiet anguish. Heather Raffo's Naja is especially strong when confronting the Osmans about their living arrangements. Ramsey Faragallah's Peter exudes warmth and humor, as Lanna Joffrey's Carmen emanates silent censure. (Note how neatly she shies away from shaking Raif's hand.) In some ways, Francis Benhamou offers the most impressive turn, double-cast as Aisa (getting a laugh simply by making an entrance, direct from bed, looking spectacularly disheveled) and as Dania, whose main desire is to stay out of the way.

Matt Frey lights both sets with considerable élan, creating a varied set of time-of-day looks. Jessica Pabst's costumes show a real understanding of each character's background and personal style. Brandon Wolcott's sound design combines electronic music with a handful of scene-setting effects. The Profane is interesting enough to leave you wanting more; is it too late for Dorhn to give this piece a second look?

Equally technically polished, and textually messy, is CasablancaBox, the latest work from the director/video designer Reid Farrington, this time in collaboration with his wife, the playwright Sara Farrington. Reid has previously invented stage pieces dealing with classic films, using footage from Gin and "It," which focused on Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, and The Passion of Joan of Arc, which drew on Carl Theodor Dreyer's landmark 1928 work. You won't be surprised to hear that CasablancaBox centers on the making of Casablanca, a film so iconic that even people who haven't seen it recognize it on sight.

CasablancaBox unfolds on a soundstage at Warner Brothers, where Casablanca is being shot. Each time a scene from the film is recreated, a small transparent screen is raised, on which is projected the actual film; behind it, we glimpse the shadowy presence of the live actors, who speak the film's dialogue; as always in Farrington's productions, the set consists of a series of ever-shifting surfaces that pick up bits of the film on the fly. The precision is remarkable; I don't like to imagine what the technical rehearsals must have been like.

Ms. Farrington's script seizes on two themes, first pointing out that the making of Casablanca was chaotic, with all involved fearing disaster. A team of four scriptwriters, working only days ahead of the shooting schedule, struggles to work out the tangled plot. (Amusingly, we see a number of alternate endings, none of which is remotely suitable.) Ingrid Bergman complains that she can't give an honest performance because she doesn't know if her character will end up with Humphrey Bogart or Paul Henreid. Bogart is stalked by his then-wife, Mayo Methot, whose own acting career has petered out, leaving plenty of time for booze and recrimination. Paul Henreid waves a copy of his contract, which contains a clause that he must always get the girl.

At the same time, the stage is filled with people whose lives eerily mirror this drama about war and refugees. An Austrian actor resents being reduced to "atmosphere" in the nightclub scenes and flinches at the film's portrayal of Germans. A Polish gaffer bitterly reminds the actor of the havoc Germany has wrought on her homeland. Dooley Wilson, the actor who plays Sam in the film, notes that he is thrilled not to be playing a Pullman porter for once, but he and other black personnel on the set are being paid only a fraction of what their white colleagues are getting. (When Wilson notes that he arrived at the studio because "Mr. Warner bought me from David O. Selznick," the meaning is hard to miss.)

It's fascinating to see Casablanca conceptualized as both a model of the messy creative process and a clearinghouse for many of the era's political and social tensions, but one wishes that all of this material had been given more shape and direction. As it is, the staging is often disconcertingly frantic -- the scenes featuring the film's irascible director, Michael Curtiz, and his band of warring writers are far too broad. Also, allowing for dramatic license, the script is loaded with pointless errors that will ring false to any film fan, arguably this production's most natural audience. When Curtiz makes a leering comment about Jean Harlow, the effect is creepy, because by the time Casablanca was being shot in 1942, she had been dead for five years. Methot accuses Bogart of carrying on with a nineteen-year-old -- clearly meaning Lauren Bacall. But Bogart didn't meet Bacall until 1945 -- and, in any case, she would have been jailbait in 1942. In this context, such errors matter; they undermine one's confidence that the artists have done their research.

Still, Roger Casey has the Bogie touch as Bogart, Catherine Gowl catches Bergman's distress at making a film she considers to be a silly pulp melodrama, and Matt McGloin is solid as Henreid, who isn't at all happy about playing second fiddle to Bogart. (All the actors sometimes speak in accents and other times not at all, for reasons totally unclear to me.) Zac Hoogendyk captures Claude Rains' smooth vocal style and Rob Hille is touching as Peter Lorre, slipping away to his trailer to shoot up before getting in front of the camera. As Wilson, Toussaint Jeanlouis also offers a striking a cappella rendition of "As Time Goes By." Other solid contributions include Laura Mroczkowski's lighting and Laura K. Nicoll's choreography.

Like The Profane, CasablancaBox dishes up rich material and makes less than a full meal out of it. Neither bores, however, and both will leave you with plenty to talk about afterward. And you may have to take another look at Casablanca, a film that, I find, never, ever grows old. -- David Barbour

(21 April 2017)

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