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Embarking on a new relationship, or a new life in a country far from home, inspires a mix of fear and excitement, feelings that are tenderly rendered in the romance between Egyptian immigrant Musa and American waitress Sheri in Yussef El Guindi’s Pilgrims: Musa & Sheri in the New World (★★★☆☆). Shirley Serotsky’s affecting production at Mosaic, if awkwardly paced at times, finds a sweet spot in its mingling of romantic comedy and cultural commentary with a streak of quiet melancholy.
The play’s sense of quiet is endearing, embodied in Ahmad Kamal’s charismatic presence as cabbie Musa, who, in his halting English, tends to find the right words to express his beaming attraction to Sheri. “No need for candles. You are the light in the room now,” he tells her, softening her defenses. Kamal deftly hints that Musa’s still waters might indeed run deeper than Sheri realizes. As the seemingly more cynical city girl, Rachel Felstein captures Sheri’s boldness, the loud brass she employs to fill up space and overcome whatever trepidation she feels as she and Musa take steps towards intimacy.
On an otherwise lonely night, after both have finished their late-night shifts, the waitress and the cab driver find themselves inside Musa’s tiny apartment. Despite insisting that she’s not the type to go up to a stranger’s apartment for sex, Sheri can’t disguise her desire. And even as she contemplates whether this could be the start of something beautiful and lasting, she displays a reasonable fear that the encounter might turn out to be a mistake in any number of ways. The script and Felstein’s performance are a bit too insistent in portraying Sheri’s conflicting emotions, but the hard-hit point at least serves the play better than a subplot involving Musa’s roommate Abdallah (Freddie Lee Bennett), a Muslim immigrant from Sudan.
More devout than Musa in his spiritual practice, Abdallah makes a pilgrimage to Mecca, journeying closer to the customs and traditions that Musa now seriously questions for himself. The contrast between their two experiences is useful characterization, but Abdallah’s subsequent disappearance seems a fruitless distraction, particularly as Serotsky keeps the character posed silently in the background for stretches of the show. Garbed in white, Abdallah adds a stroke of mystery to scenic designer Nephelie Andonyadis’ beautiful painted backdrop, but he doesn’t add much to a story that doesn’t need him hovering nearby as the two lovers’ take their passionate leap together.
Pilgrims: Musa & Sheri in the New World runs through February 16 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets are $20 to $65. Call 202-399-7993, ext. 2 or visit www.mosaictheater.org.
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