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Theatre in Review: Threesome (Portland Center Stage and A Contemporary Theatre) (59E59)

Alia Attallah. Photo: Hunter Canning.

In a kind of bizarre, Gregor Mendel-style experiment, Threesome grafts a coarse sex comedy onto an overwrought melodrama about women in the Muslim world. Act I is set in a bedroom where Leila and Rashid, who are lovers, are in a standoff. The American-born Rashid has reluctantly agreed to the desire of the Egyptian Leila for what Noel Coward used to call a triangular carnal frolic. The threesome is meant to provide the finale for her soon-to-be-published book, although it is already in the hands of her editors and appears to be well on its way to the printer. (Strangely, Rashid, who lives with Leila, knows nothing of its contents.) If anything in this setup sounds amusing, the playwright, Yussef El Guindi, douses one's expectations with exchanges like this: Rashid: "I don't need to have my ego stroked;" Leila (making like Groucho Marx): "It ain't your ego I'm thinking of stroking."

For several minutes, Leila and Rashid debate men, women, and sex roles with the impersonalness of academics discussing their dissertations. Leila wonders, "Doesn't it just come down to the male equipment for men?" She adds, "Even the term 'equipment.' Like it's something you buy at the hardware store. You whip it out for the job, then put it away until you next need it." Rashid adds, "I think we can be too clever for our own good," an opinion that many audiences at Threesome may find debatable.

Next, we meet Doug, their third, who enters from the bathroom; he's suffering from diarrhea, thanks to an excess of spicy food. This leads to a lengthy, and notably unamusing, discussion of the virtues of a bidet. As if that weren't plenty, Doug, for whom oversharing is a way of life, describes his latest sexual encounter, which also took place after an evening of gastronomic overindulgence. I'll spare you the details, except to note that the young lady was left with quite the laundry problem. (You can imagine the effect this has on Rashid, who already overindulges nervously on hand sanitizer.)

In any case, after several false passes at foreplay -- not helped by Doug's graphically described intestinal difficulties -- the evening breaks down into a series of high-minded squabbles between Leila and Rashid, with a few personal attacks thrown in. "You two have a lot of hang-ups for a couple of swingers," notes Doug, justifiably wondering how they ever got this far. "It's like a seminar without any clothes on," he adds, nibbling on the pizza he had delivered. (He also says, "I don't mean to cause any friction," then giggling, adds, "Well, I guess I do.") Before long, Doug, who is sensitive about body image and his penis size, is hurt by Rashid's suggestion that the entire setup is repulsive, and he leaves in a huff.

In Act II, El Guindi would have you believe that Doug has been hired to photograph and design Leila's book. He would also have you believe that, without her knowledge, Doug has arranged for Leila, dressed in an abaya and face covering, to be shot on a set teeming with fake orientalia, the sort of chotchkes you seen in 19th-century paintings of odalisques. And he would have you believe that Leila doesn't immediately call her editor to object to this humiliating proposition. Instead, she says, "I used to think men were a little like onions. Layered creatures who make you cry....But recently I have come to think of men as less complex vegetables. Like carrots. Or potatoes. Things that just push up through dirt and stick out."

The implausibilities pile up: Rashid crashes the photo shoot, having secretly read the book, which bares the horrific details of the violent assault Leila suffered when she and Rashid were in Egypt, apparently during the Arab Spring. (How she managed to keep this brutal rape under wraps is never made clear.) Thus, the failed threesome was an attempt at reclaiming her sexuality -- really? -- and all those silly jokes about penises and gastric attacks were nothing more than a diversionary tactic.

There's more, including a monologue about Doug's wartime experience, as an embedded reporter, with a Muslim prostitute, which reveals him to be little more than a sociopath. In another, better play this speech might be powerful; by this point, however, all credibility has left the building.

Under Chris Coleman's direction, the clearly skilled cast of three struggles to make something halfway convincing of this ungainly script. Quinn Franzen, who appears stark naked through most of Act I, at least has a few modestly amusing reactions as Doug sees his long-dreamed-of threesome recede under the continuing hostilities between Leila and Rashid. He also handles his big second-act speech, his conversational manner providing a shocking contrast to the horrors he describes; too bad there's no way of connecting it to the character he has been playing all evening. As Rashid, Karan Oberoi mostly stands around, looking aggrieved, sniping at Leila. Then again, his discomfort is at least understandable. As Leila, Alia Attallah must struggle with one steely, sententious speech after another, along with a set of motivations that make little sense. "I'm sick of being afraid all the time," she says, although she never conveys a hint of vulnerability. Similarly, she tells Rashid, "Every time you held me, all the fun, all the silliness was gone" -- but, listening to their tense exchanges, you can barely believe they ever shared a tender moment.

Oddly, even though it has two very different sets, no designer is credited; whoever he or she may be, both the first act bedroom and the second act photo studio are nicely rendered. Peter Maradudin's lighting is elegant and understated. Alison Heryer's costumes are well suited to the characters.

Whatever parallel Threesome tries to draw between the male-female divide and the gulf separating traditional Islam and modernity, its main achievement is the remarkable number of hot-button issues it manages to present in the most exploitative way possible. The finale, in which Leila strips herself naked, is borderline ridiculous, another grandly hollow gesture that says little or nothing. Threesome is an elaborate theoretic framework without any real people to inhabit it. It's all talk and no action. -- David Barbour

(22 July 2015)

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