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Theatre in Review: Angel & Echoes/A Gambler's Guide to Dying (59E59)

Top: Rachel Smyth and Serena Manteghi. Photo: Carol Rosegg. Bottom: Gary McNair. Photo: Benjamin Cowies.

The Brits Off Broadway season at 59E59 gets off to a gripping start with Angel & Echoes, a pair of one-acts by Henry Naylor that probe deeply into the tinderboxes of Afghanistan and Syria. The opener, "Echoes," combines two monologues from different centuries into a tightly woven braid of horror. One narrator, Tillie, is a smart, spirited young lady of the nineteenth century who is making her passage to India because, she notes, "my Christian desire is to produce children for the Empire. But there are no men in Ipswich, only a succession of squinting dullards." On the ship to India, she meets a rather stern lieutenant who begins to pursue her ardently. I wouldn't exactly call it a love match, but he seems a likely candidate for the realization of Tillie's goal, and soon they are married and living in Afghanistan. Tillie, confesses to near-total ignorance of men's bodies, yet she takes to sex with enthusiasm. Still, one worries for her future when, describing her wedding night, she says, "And as I mewl and paddle, he clutches my face and says, 'God bless you, Tillie, for your duty and your sacrifice. God bless'."

"I know what you're thinking," begins Samira, the second narrator, cheerfully: "Why could a grade-A student suddenly up sticks to become a housewife in a Syrian basement? Ha. You [disbelievers] don't understand faith, do you? This is my choice: Paradise or Ipswich. The first: The shadow of God's kingdom on earth. The second: A land of chip papers and dog shit. You choose." Samira is seventeen and works Saturdays in a WH Smith; her prospects appear to be bright, but her devout friend Beegum brings to her attention that the sufferings of Muslims are confined to the back pages of the newspapers -- that is, when they are covered at all. Alarmed by the rise of Nigel Farage, Samira, egged on by Beegum, meets a potential husband on Skype. A committed jihadi warrior, the suitor is, nevertheless, handsome and charming -- and he promises Samira, "When you marry me, I will treat you like a queen." Within days, both girls have absconded from their homes, ending up in Syria.

It's giving away nothing to note that neither venture ends well. Tillie's husband flies into a fury when she menstruates, accusing her of failing to do her job of getting pregnant. Later, she adds, "He is dispatched to Kandahar to quell a disturbance. I am alone in an officer's quarters. Childless. Writing letters, reading. Bored, bored, bored. This is Ipswich in Asia." Visiting a local bazaar, Tillie has an encounter with an angry, British-hating beggar, which is broken up, violently, by the lieutenant. Later, when they argue about the incident, he bashes her face, leaving a noticeable welt. When others in the British community question the wound, the lieutenant blames it on the beggar, setting off an ugly, violent chain of events.

Kept indoors in a house filled with women and cut off from contact with her mother in England, Samira awaits her husband-to-be's return, performing a tedious round of household chores each day. After the wedding, he brings her home to his resentful first wife and their Yazidi (Kurdish) servant. Things quickly sour when he takes his new bride out for a walk and they pass a fence on which are impaled human heads. When she pushes back against such barbarity, he beats her senseless. Later, the first wife informs her, "Women like you get passed from fighter to fighter," going on to explain the details of "sexual jihad," in which "the fighters marry a woman for a week, then get a cleric to 'divorce' them. He's done it before."

As directed by Emma Butler, these two tales unfold in the simplest manner possible -- no designers are credited -- allowing Naylor's words to make a powerful case that both Tillie and Samira are victims of very different systems that nevertheless are alike in viewing women as little more that beasts of burden. Rachel Smyth mordantly charts Tillie's growing horror over the life she has signed up for, no more so than when she realizes that the British have destroyed the economy of Afghanistan by forcing farmers to grow poppies, which can be converted to opium for sale to the Chinese. Serena Manteghi's Samira is a study in determination, even when she realizes what a ghastly mistake she has made and, her back to the wall, she is faced with making the most desperate possible choice. Both actresses are spellbinders, and the deft way Naylor crosscuts between their stories keeps us hanging on their every word.

The second half, "Angel," focuses on Rehana, a young Kurdish girl living near Kobane, a little Syrian town on the Turkish border. The piece begins with Rehana's father giving her shooting lessons; when her pet dog is mortally wounded by a jackal, her father insists that she pull the trigger to put the poor animal out of his misery. As it happens, her father has provided her with skills that she will need.

Rehana is seventeen and aspires to go to law school when the Kurdish YPG declares that her part of Syria has been liberated from the Assad government and made into West Kurdistan. This is, of course, a passing dream and when things start to heat up, Rehana's mother announces that they are going to flee to Europe, but the girl insists on staying behind to seek out her father, who is determined to defend the family farm. She gets together with a former cigarette smuggler who now helps sex slaves escape their captors; disguised as his wife, she begins her search, but she is captured and auctioned off to a Muslim warrior from her hometown, who intends to treat her as his personal spoils of war. She escapes, ending up in a women's fighting unit. She pleads pacifism, but is told bluntly, "You're everything they hate: Western, liberal, educated." Soon she is in the throes of battle, noting, "And with every kill, a small death of my own. Each bullet ricocheting into my gasping core. Compassion bleeding pale. In the court of Rehana, there are no mitigating circumstances. There is only one verdict: Death."

Right up to its grisly finale, Rehana's story is equally appalling and gripping; my one reservation is that it is an account of such unrelieved intensity that, especially after the frequently brutal first half, fatigue sets in. The horrors pile up so thick and fast that one almost loses the ability to respond to them; the director, Michael Cabot, might have looked for more opportunities to create variations in pace and concentration. (A running joke in which Rehana is repeatedly mistaken for Mariah Carey -- "She discovered radium," reports more than one uninformed character-- doesn't do the job. Credit Avital Lvova, the commanding young actress who plays Rehana, for repeatedly bringing one's attention back to where it belongs -- the almost unimaginable violence unfolding in Syria these days, most notably the jihadis' total disregard for the rights of women.

And, beyond any doubt, the stories in Angel & Echoes are deeply necessary, providing us with powerful and revealing glimpses into the intractable religious and sexual prejudices behind the forces that have transformed these once-pristine landscapes into charnel houses. More than most plays in New York right now, Angel & Echoes demands to be seen.

Considered against such urgent narratives as these, A Gambler's Guide to Dying pales in comparison, although Gary McNair certainly has a bizarre family tale to tell. McNair, who also wrote the piece, describes a Scottish youth who grows up deeply attached to his grandfather, an inveterate gambler, whose moment of greatest triumph came in 1966, when he successfully bet against the English in the World Cup. Doing so may have been a smart move; admitting it in a pub full of Englishmen ready to beat him up for his treachery, not so much.

Our narrator learns at his grandfather's knee the details of placing complex bets; still, he can't help noticing that the old man lives in distinctly seedy circumstances. Where, he wonders, is all the money from the World Cup triumph? As he gradually discovers, the old man likes to exaggerate the amounts of his winnings, which, in any case, he usually plows back into bigger bets.

By the time the narrator is an adolescent, his grandfather is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Undeterred, he convinces the local betting parlor that he will survive another two months. When sixty days later, he is still among the living, he -- true to form -- places his considerable winnings down against another two-month bet. By now, the national press is getting wind of this, with headlines announcing, "You bet your life."

It's certainly a story one hasn't heard before, but for some reason, it doesn't really catch fire. McNair's text -- aside from some dullish passages about some of his friends and a pompous schoolteacher -- focuses on the boy and his grandfather, yet doesn't succeed in bringing their world to life. I never quite believed the boy's attachment to his eccentric relative, who didn't seem to deserve it. As a result, the piece is more of a curio than an engaging coming-of-age story set against the background of a beloved relative's almost excessively long good-bye.

Gareth Nicholls' direction is fairly well-paced, although, as the production's dramaturg, he might have done more to flesh out the text. At least for an American, the notion that one can place such a singular bet at one's local Ladbrokes is surprising, and I would have liked to understand more about that. There is no set design credit, but somebody decided to strew the stage with cardboard boxes. The lighting, by Simon Hayes, and the sound, by Michael John McCarthy, are reasonably solid, although the music underscoring certain scenes is sometimes distracting. At a running time of seventy minutes, A Gambler's Guide to Dying feels like an anecdote stretched to the breaking point. Stick with the ladies of Angel & Echoes instead.-- David Barbour

(17 April 2017)

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