Tuesday, June 23, 2015

"Threesome" is challenging, different -- not a strikeout, nor gets to fourth base

Alia Attallah and Quinn Franzen in Threesome (Patrick Weishampel)
Threesome
ACT Theatre
Through June 28, 2015

Body politics are complicated to write about. Especially when one tries to incorporate the vast differences internationally, not just the billion dollar “beauty” industry in the United States or the way commercials have co-opted the female form to sell everything from soap to cars to … well, everything.

Yussef El Guindi’s new play, Threesome, tries to incorporate a lot of body politics into one script and then include some comedy and an underlying drama in with some exposition. It’s a laudable stretch. It’s also “new” in that few playwrights have yet delved deeply into Arab complexities where women are compelled, often, to cover up completely, and thought to be the root of sexual temptations that men are incapable of self-managing.

I enjoyed a lot of the play, a lot. There are many subtleties to contemplate when the play is over, and for those who like a play to linger in their thoughts, perhaps challenging them, this play has a lot to recommend it. There are also polarizing aspects that may have you liking it and your companion complaining.

The play is definitely about a threesome. And Quinn Franzen (as Doug) spends a large chunk of the first act nude. Quixotically, neither of the other actors Leila and Rashid (Alia Attallah and Karan Oberoi) do. That’s an aspect to argue about. Another is that the first act is pretty much a comedy and the second act is much, much more dramatic, in tone and content.

Egypt-born Leila has asked American-born Rashid… check that, cajoled or begged or demanded that Rashid participate in a threesome with her. From their very first words, though, it’s clear that the reasoning is complicated, intellectual rather than plainly sexual, and pretty badly thought out. They begin awkwardly talking about the reason for the event, even while the invited American guest is in the bathroom.

Their relationship is strained and the two do not exude much chemistry with each other, though both actors are quite attractive and charismatic in their own right. And the awkwardness continues strongly when the very naked Doug comes out of the bathroom and commences to speak about bodily eliminations in a very unsexy way.

It’s funny, more in a laugh-at than laugh-with way, and perplexing. All of the participants are clearly quite intelligent and maybe that fierce intelligence gets in the way of letting physicality take over, which is very anti-intellectual. The audience is forced to puzzle out why the event is happening at all.

In fact, that would be one argument for those who complain – perhaps the script should have had the discourse take place after the intercourse, as it were. Or perhaps it would be less strained if there were at least some small amounts of physical contact included.

While all the actors did a generally fine job, Attallah’s vocal projection was so strong that she sounded too loud for her role. Actors have to, of course, project their voices to make sure that the back row hears them. In this instance, Attallah did not, perhaps, trust that if she modulated her vocal range, that everyone would still hear her. Her presentation, then, never allowed us to feel like flies on the wall, and in fact, we were always aware that this was “theater.”

Also, the brisk direction of Chris Coleman from Portland Center Stage has her stalking, panther-like, far away from the other room inhabitants. The visuals remind us of the total lack of intimacy, even in the most intimate surroundings.

The second act is a complete reversal of tone from the first, but it doesn’t take long to realize that the seeds of the second act are sewn firmly in the first. Here, the reasons for the strain in Leila’s and Rashid’s relationship become quite apparent. In fact, Leila has written a whole book on the subject, yet cannot speak about what she’s written directly to Rashid.

This inarticulateness is a huge problem. Is it the character who does not know how to speak? Or is it the playwright who does know what his character wants to say? Or is the point that sometimes human experience is too complicated to reduce to verbalness?

It left me desperate, though, to know more about her feelings and experiences, at least from a current standpoint. If she wrote a book on the subject, could she not at least articulate from a third person perspective what is in the book? “The woman in the book feels…” or “I wrote about women’s responses to …”

The climactic last image is not a problem for me. What feels problematic is that it feels more like a theatrical stunt and that there is more to say. It’s true that no one can expect one 2-hour play to explain or wrap up this entire subject, but Leila never, ever reveals what she really feels. She is able, at all times, to intellectually push her feelings out of the way.

That last moment is definitely one to argue about for a long time. Is the play finished? It’s going in this form to New York, so in that sense, it’s finished enough.

For more information,  go to www.acttheatre.org or call 206-292-7676.