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Theatre Review by Marc Miller - December 10, 2018

Dahlia Azama, Nabil Elouahabi, Heather Raffo,
Liam Campora, and Matthew David
Photo by Joan Marcus

Noura burns on a low flame. Heather Raffo's drama, premiering at Playwrights Horizons and featuring the playwright in the title role, is about cultural assimilation, identity crisis, and marital discord, and for most of its length it dances delicately around all of these. Confrontation is avoided, until it isn't. When the emotions finally well up and explode, we're not prepared for them. And when we leave, we reflect that what we've just seen registers more as mood than drama.

It's been given a loving production, beginning with Andrew Lieberman's set, which looks rather like the lobby of a hedge fund office. In fact, it's a living room in a present-day New York apartment, with elegant curved walls, ultra-shiny floors, finely wrought shelves, no carpet, and, as one character later observes, no sofa. Its inhabitants live well. And we never do learn how Noura, her husband Tareq (Nabil Elouahabi), and their adolescent son Yazen (Liam Campora) came by all that money. They're Iraqi immigrants, in the States for eight years after watching Mosul fall apart. Tareq has a good job on the staff of a prestigious local hospital, Noura was a gifted architect who dropped her trade to concentrate on mothering, and Yazen, in Campora's winning portrayal, is a normal kid, addicted to PlayStation. Prominent in their odd-looking abode is a gift-laden Christmas tree, and we get that Noura is ardent in transitioning to full-fledged American. We also get it because, in Raffo's often-monotone and sometimes-rushed delivery, she talks about it a lot.

When you escape a broken country and enter an unfamiliar, utterly different culture, how much of your former self do you preserve, and how much do you abandon? Intriguing question, but we've a ton of plot to dispense before we get to it. Also on hand is Rafa'a (Matthew David), an old friend and perhaps more of Noura's, a successful obstetrician from a long line of them, who exists mainly to elicit insights from Noura that nobody else would. And there's the imminent arrival of Maryam (Dahlia Azama), a refugee the family's been sponsoring, who's now excelling in the sciences at Stanford. She enters, articulate, pregnant, and unapologetic. That throws Noura into a panic, and it turns out she has a Big Secret, one Raffo doesn't mask very well.

"I don't want to forget," Noura says of her prior troubled life, but all the back-and-forth with Tareq and Rafa'a and Maryam about how much to remember or cast off comes off as ruminative, inconclusive. And like The Lifespan of a Fact, Noura has one of those endings-that-aren't-endings, a frozen moment in time where we're just about to learn something crucial and the playwright leaves us hanging.

Still, there are some real issues raised, and some good speeches — one about the search for a "safe space," another from Tareq about the woman he thought he wed and what their marriage turned into. (It seems very loving at first, but as we discover, these two have differing notions of "wifely role.") It's all punctuated by prerecorded internal monologues from Noura, and fairly frequent lines that are mentally indecipherable. "Saving is a sick negotiation." Wha?

Joanna Settle directs with an accent on speed, which means much of the overlapping conversation in a rambunctious holiday-celebration scene is inaudible, and much of the dialogue give-and-take unnaturally fast, with responses before the character would actually be able to process his/her thought. Raffo's unvarying delivery aside, the actors are fine, and David and Elouahabi do quite a lot with the underwritten male roles.

One suspects the similarity between the title character's name and that of Ibsen's famous heroine is no coincidence. Like Nora Helmer, Noura is struggling to play the role society has handed her, and while she has options, they're terrifying. But A Doll's House went somewhere. Noura, like many in the current cycle of new plays about theatrically underrepresented minorities, provides welcome disclosure into unfamiliar perspectives, but it's a long, static hour and a half. You might do better to visit Playwrights Horizons' Playwright's Perspectives page, where Raffo's author's note better articulates what she's trying to say — about the struggle between individual and community, old and new self, American rugged individualism and narrow Middle Eastern traditions. Provocative topics, but in Noura, they come through only fitfully.

Through December 30
Mainstage Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral