part of the
New York International Fringe Festival
All Atheists Are Muslim
You’re Muslim! Did you know that? Okay, it’s possible you did. But regardless, it is in fact true, whatever your country of origin, ethnicity, or pre-existing religious affiliation (if any). I can say this with absolute certainty having seen Zahra Noorbakhsh’s one-woman show at the New York International Fringe Festival, All Atheists Are Muslim. In it, she depicts in rousing and convincing fashion how her hardline Iranian Muslim father can reason a man into being fit to live with (if not marry, which is the sticking point) his daughter: As long as you believe in any power greater than yourself, you qualify. Jew, Christian, it doesn’t matter — and, yes, even Zahra’s dyed-in-the-wool nonbeliever boyfriend, Duncan, makes the cut. Dad asks if Duncan believes in gravity. Duncan admits he does. Dad shouts in exultant reply: “Muslim!”
The battle Noorbakhsh describes between her and her authoritarian parents (mom uses subtler and more psychological techniques to impose her will) consumes most of this 75-minute show, and all of its most joyous and memorable moments. It’s both believable and entertaining because Noorbakhsh makes it clear that she loves and respects her parents, but disagrees with them on this particular point; that prevents her from portraying them as only immovable monsters of the Old Ways who just need to get with it. And whether adopting her father’s brusque voice and brow-furrowing glower or her mother’s doting, guilt-inducing gentleness, both come across as real people you’d love to get to know yourself.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the other two main characters. Noorbakhsh depicts Duncan as such a tunnel-vision Neanderthal (if one with a useless English degree), interested in only food and running, that we never understand either what we’re supposed to see in him or why we’re supposed to root for the two of them to make their case. Likewise, Noorbakhsh never shines as a vivid personality herself, and strains to become a key player in her own saga as she hides behind dopey dramatic devices. Relating her parents’ own tradition-defying history as a bedtime fairy tale is just distracting; her flinging metaphorical copies of Vogue and flesh-and-blood Oprah Winfreys at her father in an attempt to change his mind prevents her from making her argument with her own words. Why is a woman who feels this strongly about winning the battle of wills with her parents so content to duck and cover?
W. Kamau Bell’s direction doesn’t do as much as it could to help Noorbakhsh bring out the nuances of the story, and some editing would help focus the script on more natural sources of funny. But Noorbakhsh is an ingratiating enough presence, with a winningly wide smile, that you’d willingly give her more chances to prove herself if she took better advantage of the ones she’s already been afforded. After all, if she can make a concrete case that everyone in the world is Muslim, and make that news flash hilarious rather than eerie, she can probably do just about anything. But only if she gives herself the chance she wasn’t afraid to give her parents.
All Atheists Are Muslim
Brian Stanton’s central concern in his one-man show Blank is that he doesn’t know who he is. After seeing Blank, I can’t say I do, either. Oh, Stanton reveals certain facts: He was adopted ten days after being born, and uncertainty about his background prevented him from making a true breakthrough in his acting career until much later than he would have preferred. But given the play in which Stanton relates all this, he has apparently not learned much or come to many conclusions about either his acting or his personal history. And despite momentary flashes of reality, the overall piece comes across as empty and hollow.
A big part of the trouble is that Stanton plays a dozen or so people as if they’re nothing more than one-note affectations: His heavy-metal drama teacher speaks with a haughty voice that sounds as if it’s molded from plastic, another drama instructor punctuates a ten-minute speech with dozens of adjustments of his glasses, his mother sucks constantly on cigarettes and sounds as though she’s hopped up on Quaaludes, a stroke-stricken grandpa swears incomprehensibly, grandma is so stereotypically Italian you half imagine her to start hawking pasta sauce, a priest oozes smarmy indifference, and so on. You get sick of the clichés long before they get sick of talking.
While playing himself, Stanton trusts his art marginally more. There are times he actually appears crippled by confusion about himself and his place in the world, and anyone who’s ever felt lost will recognize his pain. But his climactic confrontation with himself is more about endlessly spinning a table to show him playing two different personalities than it is about bridging gaps in his soul, and when he finally learns from his biological mother the true (and terrible) circumstances of his birth, he quivers his lip with such self-conscious, mechanical precision that you feel you’re being emotionally manipulated rather than confided in.
Stanton needs tighter reins than director McKerrin Kelly provides in terms of his acting, but his play is a stronger piece of work, and one that compels as an exploration of personal and theatrical identity, and the nebulous places onstage where the two collide. It can’t be mentally constructive to view your original birth certificate and discover that it’s only been partially filled out, as Stanton recalls about himself here. But if he suffered the real anguish he claims as a result of that experience and others describes, his show and performance should be stuffed to the margins with revelations, relevance, and catharsis. Instead, both just seem, well, blank.