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Theatre in Review: I Call My Brothers (The Play Company/New Ohio Theatre)

Damon Owlia. Photo: Carol Rosegg

In I Call My Brothers, playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri explores the racing mind of a young Muslim man following a car bombing in New York City, where he lives. (The original script is set in Stockholm, the playwright's hometown; it has been amended for American audiences.) Amor, the protagonist, is out on a dance floor, drunk and having a good time, when the phone calls start coming in from his old friend, Shavi, apprising him of the news of a terrorist incident; listening to Shavi's messages, Amor realizes that young men like himself will instantly become objects of suspicion.

It's the kind of nightmare of free-floating anxiety that many must face in cities around the world each day; for New Yorkers, steeped in debate about racial profiling, it should prove an especially gripping dramatic situation. But I Call My Brothers has many other things on its mind, and it suffers from an inability to stick to Topic A.

For example, the phone calls from Shavi set off a long digression about how he and Amor were great friends in school but have drifted now that Shavi is married and a father. (His daughter is, unhappily, named Peanut -- an early sign of the whimsy that runs throughout the script -- and he dotes on her every gesture, irritating Amor to no end.) There's also a bit of squabbling between them about political activity -- Shavi complains vigorously about a right-wing party coming to power until Amor forces him to admit he doesn't vote. We also hear about Amor's odd habit, acquired in high school, of naming his friends after elements from the periodic table. ("Camilla K was titanium since she was so strong and Steve-the-Knife was uranium because he was so dangerous when he'd been drinking.") Effects like these often make I Call My Brothers seem more calculated than engaging.

Next up is Amor's cousin, Ahlem, who has a mystical bent of sorts -- Amor calls it "Buddhist blather" -- and she adds to Amor's anxieties by saying, "The harsh, ominous wind that is threatening to sweep down over you and your brothers, after this terrible thing that has happened. You must prepare yourself ... Soon the time of trial is come." She also tells him, "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the 'present.'" This sounds pretty good until he reminds her that this is in fact a statement lifted from the screenplay of Kung Fu Panda.

Despite her dire pronouncements, she wants Amor's assistance in replacing a drill head (she is helping their grandmother work on a cottage), so off he goes. Meanwhile, there is a phone encounter with Valeria, an ex-girlfriend who has clearly moved on, and a series of calls from an extremely tenacious telemarketer working for an animal charity. Amor has an uncomfortable face-to-face confrontation with a hardware salesman who clearly doesn't believe that the customer is always right and a fantasy encounter with another, no-longer-living, grandmother. Khemiri does a fairly good job of weaving a web of relationships around Amor, but the play's structure -- a series of conversations into which are folded flashbacks -- works against any sense of mounting tension. These rather homey personal episodes awkwardly sit side-by-side with internal monologues depicting Amor's alienation and with additional poetic sequences that comment on his uneasy place in society. Even a sequence in which Amor is trailed by a security officer lacks any suspense, especially given the fact that it is abruptly terminated.

Invasion!, another, more structurally tricky, play by Khemiri -- it opened with one of the all-time great theatrical fakeouts -- was produced by The Play Company a couple of seasons ago, and it achieved a far more confident blend of humor and mordant observation about the difficulties of Muslims who are poorly integrated into European society. Here the disparate elements fight each other, threatening to cancel each other out.

In any case, the text, as translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, is lean and natural-sounding, and the director, Erica Schmidt, maintains a lively pace, aided by a solid quartet of actors. Damon Owlia drives the action as Amor, doing his best to convey the character's constant state of unease; his considerable stage presence provides the action with a center of gravity. Rachid Sabitri is affable in the clich├ęd role of Shavi, a kind of Muslim-Swedish homeboy who has been housebroken by marriage and fatherhood. Dahlia Azama captures Valeria's charm and elusiveness -- you can see why she tantalizes and frustrates Amor -- and if she struggles a bit with the role of Tyra, it's largely because that sequence featuring her is more than little twee. Francis Benhamou is charming as Ahlem and provides a show-stopping comic cameo as Carrie "from animal rights," who won't let Amor off the hook. "Do you have a moment for animal rights, Amor?" she asks with all the vigor of someone studying the back of a cereal box. This scene pays off when Carrie and Amor realize that they share a connection.

Schmidt has also overseen a striking production design. Daniel Zimmerman's set places the action on several rows of theatre seats facing the audience. Underneath and behind the seats are rows of lights, which are used to good effect by Jeff Croiter, whose lighting also effectively carves the action into a series of striking tableaux. Jessica Pabst's costumes and Bart Fasbender's sound are also solid.

For all this good work, however, I Call My Brothers seems like something of a missed opportunity, a collection of wryly humorous and caustic elements that never really quite gel. After a while, I started to hope that Amor would just turn the phone off. -- David Barbour

(4 February 2014)

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