Last year the Traverse, Scotland’s home of new writing, kicked off its Edinburgh Festival Fringe program with “Petrol Jesus Nightmare #5,” a violent broadside by Henry Adam that raged against American involvement in the Middle East. This year, helmer Philip Howard returns to the Middle East, but with a more peaceable vision of 21st century cultural conflict. Set in the Syrian capital, David Greig’s “Damascus” is an ironic comedy of middle-class manners that delights in up-turning prejudice and preconceptions. Although by the end the play loses much of its initial clarity of purpose, it remains a witty, thought-provoking challenge to cultural stereotypes.
Not for the first time, Greig sets his play in a hotel. The prolific dramatist is drawn to locations, such as airports and railroad stations, where his characters are free to define and redefine themselves. He has used the setting of a hotel in “Mainstream” (1999), “San Diego” (2003) and “Pyrenees” (2005), both because he’s amused by the anodyne details of corporate culture and because he gets to examine his characters set free from the defining anchors of home, family and nationhood.
Thus, in “Damascus,” there’s a running joke about the blandness of hotel piano-bar music as the elegant Dolya Gavanski plays sentimental muzak on the grand piano while dreaming of performing challenging concertos in concert halls. Meanwhile, Paul Higgins plays Paul, a Scottish writer and salesman of English-language text books, forced to extend his stay in the city because of a terrorist attack on Beirut airport.
Through his educational books, Paul tries to sell a vision of a modern, multicultural Britain. But his engagement with Nathalie Armin’s sharp and intelligent Muna, Alex Elliott’s brusque and self-obsessed Wasim and Khalid Laith’s naive hotel porter Zakaria show him a culture no less vibrant, complex and sophisticated. Away from his wife and children, Paul is vulnerable to seduction by a society of which he had no real understanding.
Although the plasma screen television in the hotel foyer shows a stream of images of war from neighboring countries, this Damascus is a progressive city, resistant to fundamentalism (more resistant, in fact, than liberal Westerner Paul) and built on long centuries of cultural growth.
When Muna takes issue with the storylines in Paul’s books, it is sometimes because her political understanding is more forward-looking than his. Equally, his unquestioning belief in freedom of speech reminds her of the radical political passion she once had.
This debate runs alongside a wry observational comedy about language, translation and the idea of summing up a culture in a text book designed only to teach grammar and tenses. It’s the humor of seeing ourselves as others see us and the sense of difference that dig in as the play progresses.
Paul finds himself falling in love with Muna, who refuses to reciprocate, and Zakaria pins his hopes of escaping to Hollywood on Paul, who is in no position to help. It’s as if Greig is suggesting that, although there are more similarities than differences, on a certain deep level, the cultures can never truly come together.
Howard’s production is excellently acted, but Greig’s despairing conclusion is imperfectly rooted in the narrative. As is often the case when a gun appears in the final scene, it suggests the playwright hasn’t found a resolution to the promising scenario he sets up. The result is a light-footed, fresh and contemporary play, but one that leaves behind a sense of uncertainty about what it all means.