Scratch the inane title. Despite its ethnic roots in the Palestinian Diaspora entrenched in Detroit, Betty Shamieh’s second play (after “Chocolate in Heat”) is not in the least ferocious. Cast in the structural conventions of the domestic drama, play tells the old familiar story of how children who grow up in discontented families are doomed to inherit their unrealized dreams. Scribe livens up the formula by applying it to characters whose highly individualized personalities have been shaped (and, in some ways, misshapen) by their shared cultural heritage. Since textual holes keep the script from being actor-proof, production is lucky to have a bang-up cast guided by Marion McClinton’s pro directorial hand.
Although the full story doesn’t come out until the end of the play, here’s the gist: Back in the old country — Jordan — sisters Karema (Sarita Choudhury) and Hala (Annabella Sciorra) were romanced by brothers Ahmed (Joseph Kamal) and Abe (Daniel Oreskes). As a popular singer of traditional Arabic folksongs, Hala would have been the natural mate for Ahmed, a celebrated composer and musician. With their common talent for making shrewd and hard-headed business deals, Karema and Abe also would seem to have been fated for one another.
But love rarely proves to be the meeting of true minds that it’s cracked up to be, and when the play opens, Karema and Ahmed are old marrieds living in a cramped apartment in Detroit. Although they own a neighborhood bodega and income-producing real estate, their lives are pinched and joyless, a fact conveyed by the drab and tasteless furnishings of Beowulf Boritt’s dismal set. Ahmed has given up his music, Karema has turned into a miserly shrew and, for reasons that aren’t entirely convincing, Abe, a successful music producer, is not welcome in their home.
Not surprisingly, family tensions have made a contrarian of the couple’s teen daughter Irene, who is determined to have a singing career. Although it seems pretty obvious that her talents do not lie in this direction, neither the playwright nor Sherri Eldin, who plays the part with more ungainly energy than is needed, provides dramatic clues as to where her true talents do lie. Nevertheless, the audience is expected to take it on faith that the kid has something going in the creativity department — something that is stirred when Auntie Hala shows up for an unexpected visit.
As Hala the housebreaker, Sciorra shows terrific versatility in the art of body language. Flaunting her shapely frame in Mattie Ullrich’s gaudy costumes, she shows Hala for what she appears to be — a high-maintenance mistress whose Kuwaiti lover tossed her out when Iraq invaded the country (the year is 1991) and declared Palestinians personae non grata. Using her delicate features to speak a more subtle language, Sciorra shows a vulnerable side of Hala that redeems her character more than words, even as she sends the entire household into a tailspin.
The dynamic of the play, which turns on the character transformations that result from the catalytic presence of Hala in the house, is artfully executed by McClinton and company. But no directorial sleight-of-hand can pick up the slack in the loose plot, which lacks sharp and pointed indicators of where it’s headed. And although close encounters between individual characters play well, the big payoff scene that every domestic drama has to have to earn its chops — that free-for-all bloodbath of bottled-up revelations and recriminations that really tears the skin off every member of the family — never materializes.
Shamieh has given it a good shot. But before sitting down to do her rewrite, she ought to re-read Arthur Miller’s “The Price.”