Watching “Dov and Ali” is a little like talking politics with a person who raises the subject but is too timid to have opinions. Playwright Anna Ziegler seems to believe it would be rude to come to any conclusions about Jewish/Muslim relations, the fundamentalist elements in either culture, or anyone’s religious convictions. One wishes, then, that she hadn’t chosen as her subjects a fundamentalist Muslim teenager and a conflicted Orthodox Jewish English teacher. Ziegler’s tightly structured play has clearly been cut and polished down to its essence, which is only a virtue if you’re not already being glib.
The most likable character in “Dov and Ali” is Sonya (the consistently charming Heidi Armbruster), a pretty, idealistic teacher whose main character flaw is that she’s in love with her complete loser of a colleague, Dov (Adam Green).
Dov is a terminally conflicted former Ph.D student defined mostly by his refusal to do things. Things like finishing his dissertation; discussing marriage with Sonya after two years of dating; standing up to his father, a disappointed (who can blame him?) rabbi. Dov would just rather not deal with any of it — he’s like a kid with a permanent hall pass.
Into Dov’s life comes Ali (Utkarsh Ambudkar), the son of a Pakistani immigrant with actual problems. Haunted by his sister Sameh (Anitha Gandhi), the narrator of the tale, Ali confronts Dov about anything that pops into his head, from the accepted interpretation of “Lord of the Flies” to whether Dov is practicing his religion adequately.
The latter challenge looks like it’s going to make for some interesting discussions — Ali’s family is devoutly Muslim — but it’s only a bait-and-switch. This is a cry for attention: Ali has done something terrible because of his faith and he needs absolution, or maybe just a hug. Katherine Kovner’s adequate direction gets all the points across, but it doesn’t add any nuance to the play, so the relationship between the childlike adult and the adult-like child doesn’t get fleshed out much in performance. Both women are excellent, though, and we occasionally wonder why they don’t simply abandon the men and splinter off into a more interesting play of their own.
A little way into the text, after Sonya orders Dov to put up or shut up, she gives him a little pep talk about finally making some decisions in his life. “It’s called being your own person,” she says. “And I don’t see how that can be against the rules, at least any rules that are actually worth heeding.”
That’s as close as “Dov and Ali” comes to endorsing a philosophy, and while “be yourself” might be a nice thing to tell depressed teenagers, it’s a uniquely unhelpful moral to a play that touches on religious relations. The problem with cultural clashes between the West and the Islamic world has surprisingly little to do with anyone’s inability to express himself, and the suggestion that religion simply stifles the better angels of our nature is a condescending one.