June 17, 2009

A Bid for Understanding from "Dov and Ali"

For the first 10 minutes or so of Dov and Ali, the new 90-minute play that recently opened at the Cherry Lane Theater, I kept my eye on the backpack that the young Muslim character carried. I was waiting for it to be revealed as a bomb and him as a terrorist. Which is, I’m sad to say, the stereotype that so many plays and movie now assign actors of Middle Eastern and Asian descent. But this play avoided that, which alone is enough to endear it to me.

Instead, Anna Ziegler’s drama tells the parallel stories of Dov, a rabbi’s son teaching in a Detroit high school, and Ali, a devout Muslim who is one of his students. Both young men are wrestling with the restrictions imposed by their faiths but unable to break free from them entirely. It’s an interesting premise and certainly a relevant one. But in her admirable desire to be fair, Ziegler reduces her characters to mouthpieces debating various sides of the issue.

Adam Green and Utkarsh Ambudkar give sincere performances but their Dov and Ali still play more to the intellect than to the heart. The two female roles—a feisty Heidi Armbruster as Dov’s shiksa girlfriend Sonya and the lovely Anitha Gandhi as Ali’s sister Sameh—come off better. Sameh is the narrator of the story as well as the catalyst for its climax and I found the character, at least as portrayed by Gandhi, so intriguing that I wish Ziegler had focused the story entirely around her.

I was also taken by Steven C. Kemp’s set design: a simple blackboard on which various screens have been attached. The actors pull down the appropriate screen when the locales change. It's a smartly low-tech piece of stagecraft and a reminder that you don’t always need a lot of money to do clever work in the theater.

Dov and Ali premiered in London earlier this year and drew very good reviews (click here to read one). It’s also already scheduled for a run at the Chester Theater in the Berkshires next month. And I wish it continued success. After all, it’s hard not to pull for a show that not only speaks up for tolerance but also puts its actions where its mouth is by treating its Muslim characters with the same respect as the others in the play.

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