A stunning lead performance from Lameece Issaq is the warm heart of “Food and Fadwa,” a bittersweet play by Issaq and Jacob Kader about a Palestinian family trying to hold a traditional Arab wedding under the curfews, checkpoints, lockdowns and occasional bursts of gunfire that pass for “normal” life in the occupied West Bank. But the real conflict begins when cousins from New York arrive for the wedding, unwittingly bringing tension and sorrow into this traditional household. Show indicates a bright future for Noor Theater, the new company in residence at NYTW.
People living in lands under military occupation can either break out of their virtual prison or develop coping mechanisms to carry on.
Fadwa Faranesh (the radiant Issaq) assumed full duties as family cook, maid, nurse and caretaker after her mother died and her father developed Alzheimer’s. Living under repressive conditions in Bethlehem and carrying those multiple domestic roles would break any woman’s back, but Fadwa has an extraordinary set of coping skills.
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A renowned cook of traditional Arab fare, Fadwa playfully acts out her secret fantasy of having her own TV cooking show. “No food, no respect. Bad food, bad reputation,” she cheerfully informs her imaginary audience about the perils of cooking for company. Addressing her faithful viewers with unforced natural charm, she shares her joy in preparing such delectable comfort food as baba ghanoush, which translates as “spoiled old daddy” in her charming version of the origin of the dish.
Dreams of marrying her fiance when he returns from America also keep Fadwa smiling. And when her cares are simply too much for her, she takes heart from memories of her father (Laith Nakli) planting trees and teaching her to appreciate “the symbiosis between man and nature.”
In these fantasy scenes, Andromache Chalfant’s beautifully detailed set of the interior of an Arab home opens to the family olive grove as it used to be, and lighting designer Japhy Weideman lets the warmth of the desert sun light up the face of the old man as he, too, used to be.
As Nakli makes clear in his rock-solid perf, Fadwa’s father was at one time the very embodiment of the strong family patriarch. But he was brought to his knees when soldiers destroyed the olive grove that was his personal pride and joy, as well as the source of the family income. With no way to cope with a loss of that magnitude, the old man has found escape by living in a merciful Alzheimer’s haze.
Fadwa’s fiance, Youssif Azzam (Haaz Sleiman, very sensitive), and his younger brother Emir (Arian Moayed, very cheerful) have made black humor their method of coping. In one comic routine they boisterously salute the wall that seals off the West Bank. When a cousin from New York expresses outrage at the barricade (“I can’t believe the U.N. let this happen!”), the brothers lift their glasses in ironic toast to a barrier that is 307 miles longer than the Berlin Wall, which they call “a mere fence!”
Emir and his beloved Dalal (Maha Chehlaoui) have the youth and energy to escape. After the wedding, they are emigrating to New York to live with their cousin Hayat (Heather Raffo, overdoing the Ugly American persona), a celebrity chef and restaurateur.
Like others of her generation, Aunt Samia (Kathryn Kates, giving a spirited perf of this tough widowed lady) has schooled herself to just ignore the indignity of living under siege, content to gossip with her friends and devote herself to “Arab Idol.”
Although no one acknowledges it, Fadwa holds this big family together by honoring their cultural traditions, from the Arab cuisine to the Arab custom of caring for one’s aged parents. But such self-sacrifice comes at a cost, and Fadwa pays up when her fiance informs her that he’s going to marry her cousin Hayat, the celebrated chef who stole “authentic” Arab recipes from Fadwa and put a trendy spin on them.
The play breaks down here because the central conflict between Fadwa’s traditionalism and Hayat’s modern values is a bogus one. The playwrights may think they’ve set up a clear dramatic choice for Youssif, but it doesn’t play that way because Hayat is an obvious fraud — and Youssif is a gutless fool for being taken in by her phony values.
The false conflict also diminishes Fadwa by suggesting that she chose her old-fashioned life in Bethlehem over a modern life with Youssif in America. But since she’s been put in sole charge of maintaining family traditions, that’s no kind of choice at all — just the cost of being too noble for her own good.