By Stanford Friedman
You know that a play based on the war in Pakistan has gone off the rails when its final scene features two previously unseen characters, in a doctor’s office in London, in the year 2052. But long before we reach this weird climax, we encounter lots of rocky road in Against the Hillside, the new work by early career playwright Sylvia Khoury. Despite a strong opening scene that sets up a promising premise, we soon lose two of the lead characters, the supporting characters lose credibility and the playwright loses her focus. A potentially fascinating story about two couples ruining each other’s lives while 8000 miles apart becomes a convoluted who-lives-and-who-dies saga. A hat tip to the Ensemble Studio Theatre for even staging an 11 character play in an era where many companies clamor for small cast productions, but in this instance fewer would have most likely been better.
Half of the story is set in war-torn Waziristan, circa 2012, where we meet Sayid (Babak Tafti), a brave and handsome shopkeeper, and his no-nonsense wife, Reem (Mahira Kakkar). With an American drone buzzing overhead, and a young son to take care of, Reem is fearful that their days are numbered while Sayid is trapped between potentially being blown up if they stay and possibly being killed by his terrorist customers if they flee. Reem is haunted by the idea that their every move is being tracked from above and her instincts gain credibility when the action shifts to Las Vegas where drone pilot Matt (Jack Mikesell) has grown obsessed with his surveying, much to the dismay of his newly pregnant wife, Erin (Caroline Hewitt). In an extreme case of the grass always being greener, Matt believes that the two heat signatures on his screen are a happier couple than he and his frazzled spouse.
At this point, Khoury piles on the extras. Sayid’s uncle, Farid (Rajesh Bose), and cousin Ahmed (Mohit Gautam), push and pull Sayid and Reem. Meanwhile, Matt’s overseer, Jared (John Wernke), and a new recruit, Anthony (Avery Whitted), provide outlets for Matt to blow off some steam. Then unexpectedly, along with a gun that is shown but never again mentioned, both Reem and Matt are gone from the play. We jump ahead six months to find that, due to their departures, not to mention the occasional bombing, most everyone else has gone a little crazy. Sayid now teaches at a school where only one kid (Sammy Pignalosa) is brave enough to show up. Anthony stresses out in a strange interlude with Erin. Ahmed offers Farid a new life, but it’s too little too late. Finally, the playwright (who is currently enrolled at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine) drops us off in the medical world of the next generation to lament the wounds of war.
As directed by William Carden, the Pakistan scenes are well paced, but most of the Vegas action feels labored. There is minimal chemistry between Mikesell’s Matt and Hewitt’s Erin; with Mikesell yet to fully inhabit his character, Hewitt has little to play off of. Wernke’s Jared is instilled with a fondness for his daughter’s ballet skills, and though that doesn’t seem especially credible, it’s not nearly as far-fetched as the secret fear that Whitted’s Anthony unrealistically harbors. In contrast, Tafti and Kakkar, as Sayid and Reem, throw off romantic sparks from the start. This makes Reem’s solo departure a shock that is difficult to fathom. It is also disappointing that we get to appreciate so little of Kakkar’s strong work. Bose also does a fine job as Farid in his slow fade to hopelessness, and Guatam makes Ahmed highly likable, though whether or not we should actually like him remains an open question. Jason Simms’ sleek scenic design includes wall panels suggestive of the Pakistani mountains as seen from a drone’s perspective. If only Khoury’s many psychological landscapes were as sharply encapsulated.
Against the Hillside – By Sylvia Khoury, directed by William Carden.
WITH: Rajesh Bose (Farid/Abdul), Mohit Gautam (Ahmed), Caroline Hewitt (Erin/Carter), Mahira Kakkar (Reem), Jack Mikesell (Matt), Sammy Pignalosa (Moussa), Babak Tafti (Sayid), John Wernke (Jared) and Avery Whitted (Anthony).
Scenic design by Jason Simms, costume design by Sydney Maresca, lighting design by Barbara Samuels, sound design and original music by Shane Rettig; Kate Croasdale, production stage manager. Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Radio Drama Network at EST’s Curt Dempster Theatre, 549 W. 52nd St., http://www.ensemblestudiotheatre.org/current-season-1/2018/1/31/against-the-hillside. Through February 25. Running time: 90 minutes.