- The Magazine
Like the savory pastry made over a Zoom call by the characters in Amir Nizar Zuabi’s This is Who I Am (★★★☆☆), you never quite know if a play will work until it comes out of the “oven” as a living, breathing production. No matter the playwright’s heartfelt intention and how carefully they may have measured or applied their instinct, it may or may not work. Put simply, as the English say, the “proof is in the pudding.”
In the case of This is Who I Am, promising ingredients were certainly in play. The idea that families, even at distance over Zoom, will have old wounds that color a conversation or be triggered by the rolling of dough thousands of miles apart, feels primed for an affecting intimacy.
And there is certainly a cleverness to Zuabi’s construct. A father, back home in Palestine, is literally “stirring the pot” by asking his semi-estranged adult son, a world away in New York City, to help him make a better job of a dish prized by a wife and mother they both miss. It is a simple device that soon becomes a multi-layered metaphor and useful narrative driver. But despite all these carefully assembled ingredients — and even if one can sense the deeply authentic grief that underlies the writing — this never quite works.
For starters, there is Zuabi’s often-awkward dialogue. Stilted language is going to jar, and jar hard, for an audience that has been Zooming daily non-stop for nine months. Theater is certainly not meant to doggedly imitate real life, but there is a context here — an audience that has been immersed in their own “theater” and we all have all learned to listen to our screens that much more closely, not just for words, but for meaning. Language and its cadence must sing, even if the song is intentionally discordant. The formality of lines such as “I have no choice in the matter” or “You’re impossible. You feel very close,” just don’t work.
Ramsey Faragallah as the Father and Yousof Sultani as the Son make the most of the banter and deliver many nicely-drawn and understated expressions that makes good use of the Zoom “stage,” but in his quest for drama, Zuabi crashes the space in just too many ways to sustain the gains.
First, there is the intense expository. Yes, this is a father trying to make his case, but the descriptions of the wife he remembers feel like the rhapsodies of a character in a vintage movie. She is mansplained as proud, heroic, and yet obsessed with a tea set. She is strong yet fragile and ridiculous in her giant oven gloves. Her favorite dish was “who she was,” but it is more about her beloved land, than her. The love may be heartfelt, but this woman has nevertheless been consigned to the kind of pillar that has never serves women well.
The “flavor” of the piece falls further out of balance with the father’s harrowing account of his wife’s final illness and his shame at his revulsion. It feels terribly out of place, especially coming from a man who could hardly admit to memories of his son being bullied. The brave attempts by Faragallah and Sultani to breach the gap with raw emotion can’t possibly work. So much more would have come from less, especially with these actors.
Still, the concept of a Zoomed production is eminently watchable, the closeness to the actors engaging, and scenic designer Mariana Sanchez’ evocative sets show the power of small spaces. The good news is that the screen can work for theater.
This is Who I Am is broadcast live through Jan. 3. Tickets are $15.99 for a single, or $30.99 for a household. Visit www.woollymammoth.net.
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