'Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven'

Play lauds man's basic secular goodness and laments his tendency toward faith.

Mahida’s Extra Key to Heaven” belongs to a line of vaguely political plays that laud man’s basic secular goodness and lament his tendency toward faith, conflating Jesus freaks with Muslim terrorists and mourning gentle humanism. At opposite ends of the cultural spectra are Edna and Thomas, a conservative American homemaker and her flighty artist son; and Mahida and Ramin, a liberal Iranian studying in the U.S. and her fanatical brother. Finely tuned perfs and nuanced direction from Will Pomerantz give the play some excellent textures, but what good is theater that presents the audience with all its favorite opinions?

Mahida (Roxanna Hope) and Thomas (reliable James Wallert) are the first of these characters to meet, standing at opposite ends of a pier as Mahida waits for the ferry to pick her up and take her back to the mainland in a small, unnamed, ocean-side town. Thomas, who comes to the dock to “feel some kind of infinitude,” invites wary Mahida to spend a chaste evening at his mother’s house since the last ship of the day has sailed, and we learn that Mahida is stranded because her brother was annoyed enough with her to kick her out of the car and make her find her own way home. He also might be watching.

Playwright Russell Davis, who grew up in Europe and the Middle East, seems to suggest these two people might be at the beginnings of a nice cross-cultural romance if it weren’t for their relatives. It’s Edna we meet first, played with exactly the right amount of winning stubbornness by Michele Pawk.

Edna is, briefly, a pain — she has very clear ideas about the right way to do everything and we just hate her for it, from her unasked-for advice to her obsession with keeping Mahida’s shoes tidy. It would be nice, someday, to see a play in which we have a domineering liberal matriarch and a timid conservative twentysomething, but if we must see this character again, at least Pawk gives her as much subtlety as possible.

Mahida’s brother Ramin, played by the constantly surprising Arian Moayed, is a character we don’t see nearly as often onstage: a menacing, aggressive Muslim. Given the constant demonization of Islam over the last few years, the impulse to avoid feeding public fear has made plenty of sense, but abandoning it makes for an interesting jolt: Surprise! He really does hate your freedom! What doesn’t make a lot of sense is Edna’s reaction to Ramin: She takes the same condescending tone she used on Mahida. Wouldn’t such a jingoistic wingnut be afraid of Muslim men, especially when one of them invites himself into her house?

That house, by the way, is one of the best things about the production: Mimi Lein’s half-built white walls and carefully placed tchotchkes tell us everything about Edna’s hermetically sealed life, and she and Pomerantz choreograph a series of fascinating transitions as the house is assembled and disassembled while the actors look on.

The final image — of Mahida, Edna and Thomas looking over the side of the ferry on a sea full of casements, doors and siding — presents us with poetry to match Davis’ best monologues. It’s a shame the play’s central ideas aren’t quite worthy of it.

Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven

Signature Theater; 160 seats; $38.50 top


An Epic Theater Ensemble presentation of a play in two acts by Russell Davis. Directed by Will Pomerantz.


Sets, Mimi Lein; costumes, Theresa Squire; lighting, Justin Townsend; sound, Katie Down; production stage manager, Erin Maureen Koster. Opened Sept. 26, 2009. Reviewed Sept. 21. Running time: 2 HOURS.


Mahida - Roxanna Hope Thomas - James Wallert Edna - Michele Pawk Ramin - Arian Moayed
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