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There’s some capital-A acting on display in Signature Theatre’s world-premiere of Annalisa Dias’ 4,380 Nights (★★½). And in one actor’s case, it’s of the sort that distracts from, rather than illuminates, the play’s otherwise rich storytelling. Moreover, there are parts of the 4,380 Nights that seem to get in the way of the playwright’s primary narrative focus: a carefully plotted examination of the years-long detention and interrogation of an Algerian Muslim detainee at Guantanamo Bay.
That prisoner, Malik Essaid, brilliantly portrayed by Ahmad Kamal, was captured just after 9/11, then transferred in 2002 from Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. As Malik is assigned a new legal aide, attorney Bud Abramson (Michael John Casey), to contest his case, he has a chance to relay to Bud and to the audience the defense he claims to have laid out consistently, for months on end.
Stating Malik’s case seated at the interrogation table, Kamal casts a magnetic spell. Remarkably, he performs the first act chained to the floor, on a set dominated by a wall of chains hanging before a backdrop of distant mountains. Between interrogation sessions with U.S. military and intelligence, and friendlier conferences with Bud, Malik makes a plea for better treatment and conditions. He can’t rest peacefully in his cell with the pounding heavy metal music the soldiers pipe in at all hours. He’s subjected to so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, and force-fed through a tube. Lonely and broken, he hears voices.
Kamal’s performance communicates Malik’s alternating hope and disillusionment, his humor in the face of despair. The portrayal in itself prosecutes a solid case for more just and humane treatment for detainees like Malik, whose lives the government holds by a thread.
Whether or not he’s guilty, at some point his being held with no legal basis should force self-interrogation on the part of those who would allow him to be held captive. As Malik and the play ask, if America is about freedom and justice, then what is Guantanamo about? Is it a crime to be a Muslim in the U.S.?
To its detriment, 4,380 Nights digresses frequently from that valid question and Malik’s compelling story, to interweave the turbulent history of the European conquest of North Africa. The folly of Bush’s wars in the Middle East is contrasted with France’s misadventures in Algeria, and the Roman advance against the Carthaginians.
Appearing throughout as “The Woman,” or rather as different women who bore witness to these confrontations, Lynette Rathnam is saddled with several lengthy, florid monologues that grind the play’s momentum to a halt. Rathnam pronounces Dias’ poetic language with relish, but neither she nor director Kathleen Akerley manage to forge an emotional connection between The Woman’s verbiage, and the prisoner whose drama drives the piece.
Kamal and Casey do forge a necessary and urgent connection between Malik and Bud, the prisoner’s one sincere and dedicated advocate. Often it’s deflating to leave them, in the heat of a powerful moment, to follow the Woman down another bumpy detour to Carthage. As desperately as Malik wants to get out of Gitmo, 4,380 Nights is at its best when it stays there.
MOUNTING FAST AND FLUID FARCE is hard work, and it looks mighty hard at times for a few of the performers in Keegan Theatre’s D.C. premiere production of Unnecessary Farce (★★).
Set in two adjoining cheap motel rooms, playwright Paul Slade Smith’s would-be comic shenanigans spring from a solid enough premise. Two police detectives, wide-eyed Billie (Jenna Lawrence), and partner, Eric (Noah Schaefer), are at the motel staging a sting operation to catch their city’s dirty Mayor Meekly (Mario Baldessari) paying off an accountant accomplice, Karen (Emily Levey), who’s allegedly helping him cover up a massive embezzling scheme.
But actually, Karen’s in on the set-up to nab the mayor, who might not be the only culprit Billie and Eric should be pursuing. The result is a pile-up of shifting motives and shifty characters — from a Scottish assassin known as the Highland Hitman (Jon Townson), to the mayor’s security man Agent Frank (Christopher Herring) — that prizes pace over wit and punchlines over plot, to a degree that’s extreme even for a farce.
Director Ray Ficca has seen to it that his cast hits their door-slamming paces with due vitality and speed, with Lawrence especially adept at keeping up with the racing, tongue-twisting dialogue. But among the entire coterie, there’s very little verve in the characterization, from concept to costuming. Eric the cop has the hots for Karen the accountant, but Schaefer and Levey generate little heat from their frequent clinches. Their supposedly uncontrollable attraction feels activated by the entrances and exits of others, rather than saucily laced between the lines.
The entrances and exits themselves comprise an especially nonsensical pattern of nonsense, as Smith’s script supplies only the flimsiest internal logic as to why most of the characters — the mayor, in particular — keep dithering in and out of these motel rooms, and not far away from trouble.
At least Baldessari keeps the doddering mayor amusing, as a sort of genteel space cadet who pops in and out of compromising situations. He’s for the most part spared from joining in the clunky slapstick, which is rarely plied with a finesse that feels natural. Instead, the tumbles over couches and doors to the noggin tend to appear telegraphed and rehearsed. The element of surprise occasionally rears its welcome head, but it’s generally obscured by the haze of a production laboring too diligently for laughs.
Unnecessary Farce runs to February 10 at The Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church St. NW. Tickets are $35 to $45. Call 202-265-3767, or visit KeeganTheatre.com.
4,380 Nights runs to February 18 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington. Tickets are $40 to $103. Call (703) 820-9771, or visit sigtheatre.org.
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