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The Profane

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 10, 2017


Ali Reza Farahnakian, Francis Benhamou, Babak Tafti,
Tala Ashe, and Heather Raffo
Photo by Joan Marcus

The one intriguing twist Zayd Dohrn puts on the traditional culture-clash-marriage plot he uses in The Profane, which just opened at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, is that the boy's family and the girl's family relate to each other all too well. Both may live in the great unifier that is New York City, and both may be of Arab descent, but her family is completely secularized and his is about as deep into conservative Islam as you can get. Neither is naturally inclined to approve of the other, and that's where the sparks fly.

Well, that's where they ought to fly, at any rate. The problem with both the play and Kip Fagan's stylish but laid-back production of it is that the inherent differences don't lead to anything more heated than a brief tiff in the second act of the 100-minute evening. What either side thinks of the other is less important than what America has done to both: so suppressed, or perhaps cured, their disagreements that real fights couldn't break out if they wanted to.

This would matter less if Dohrn didn't set the stage for a serious conflagration of competing ideas. Emina (Tala Ashe), the 21-year-old daughter of novelist Raif (Ali Reza Farahnakian) and dance instructor Naja (Heather Raffo), has returned to her parents' Manhattan apartment with her boyfriend Sam (Babak Tafti) in tow. He's a perfectly nice boy, clean-cut and pre-med, but from the instant he walks in the door it's clear his presence is not appreciated. (Raif ignores Sam's hand when he offers it.) Why exactly this is must, of course, be left unstated for much of the first act, the assumption being that our slow discovery of Sam's "crime" will propel the action forward.

In any event, Raif does have cogent reasons for having turned his back on his one-time faith, and these allow him to bond with Sam in a way that neither would have expected. They don't easily ingratiate Sam's family to him, though, when he meets them at their White Plains home in Act II. Mom Carmen (Lanna Joffrey) and dad Peter (Ramsey Faragallah) are willing to set aside their beliefs for the length of a single family dinner (not even prayers, Sam insists), but it's not enough to placate either Raif or Raja, and the instant that becomes clear is the instant everyone's civilized fa├žades drop.


Ashe, Tafti, Raffo, and Farahnakian
with Ramsey Faragallah and Lanna Joffrey
Photo by Joan Marcus

This endures for but a few brief seconds, but it hints at what The Profane might have been: a truly illuminating, even lacerating, examination of what all of us are willing to give up—or not—for what we believe in. The scene is lopsided (Raif comes out looking much worse than Carmen or Peter), but it's still energized and fierce, promoting a depth of feeling and institutionalized anger that ought to fuel a play constructed on contrasts this stark. It also sets the stage for an even more stunning revelation that changes the parameters of the kids' relationship yet again.

But aside from this encounter, the conflict is too theoretical to do anything but underwhelm. Although Dohrn outwardly gives both their sides say (each act begins by depicting each family's own version of domestic dysfunction), Raif and Raja's bulletproof harshness and Peter and Carmen's comity do suggest, intentionally or otherwise, that he's stacking the deck. This may be because he doesn't want us to misconstrue Sam's background as fundamentalist, or rather radicalized, but it still casts one side of the argument as far too reasonable and welcoming compared with the other.

The individual characters could be drawn more fully, too. Shading for Raif and Raja to make them less resemble immovable objects, and a richer look into what Peter and Carmen derive from their religion, would not hurt. (As it is, we understand what's locking Emina into her way of life more than we do what's trapping Sam within his.) Plus, Dohrn has not figured out what to do with his two other characters: Emina's gay-bartender older sister Aisa, and Dania, a young woman who lives with Peter and Carmen, are both played by the same performer (Francis Benhamou), but neither is minutely detailed and both are wedged awkwardly into the plot. (Also, since they can't possibly attend the same dinner party in Act II, a single line of dialogue justifying Aisa's absence would be nice.)

Takeshi Kata has designed a dazzling pair of sets to reinforce the parents' incompatible priorities, and these are nicely ornamented by Jessica Pabst's costumes and Matt Frey's lights. Fagan has directed it all a bit like a sitcom, which can suck the air out of some of the more loaded moments, but he does keep things moving fluidly. And the acting throughout is solid, though only Joffrey's and Faragallah's portrayals truly moving and artifice-free. They let you see how Carmen and Peter are caught between the old ways and the new, and struggling to maintain what matters as fewer and fewer around them agree with their conclusions.

The Profane needs a lot more of that all the way around—Dohrn seems to want explosions without accelerant, which runs counter to generally accepted laws of dramatic physics. Were the entire play structured around, say, the families' first meeting, with the tensions between them slowly becoming more obvious and contentious between courses, maybe it would work. But Dohrn gives us too much time to realize how little they have to fight about, and how unlikely they would be to come to blows over it anyway. That's good news for them and the world around them, but it's bad news for the enlightening, enlivening story that should be told—but never quite is.


The Profane
Through April 30
Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42 Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral


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