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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review

I think about borders all the time. What is the boundary, I wonder, between what lasts and what does not? What are my real thoughts, and not my thoughts? What is honest, or dissembles? Blesses or curses? What is the boundary, do you know, between these things? What decides? And what possible border could there sometimes be, I wonder, when there is all the infinite space, as you say. — Mahida
Mariam Habib
Mariam Habib
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Russell Davis's play is having its New Jersey premiere at Playwrights Theater of New Jersey only eight months after the Epic Theatre Ensemble production played a limited Off Broadway engagement at the Peter Norton space. I saw it there on the same night as Elyse Sommer and although I was mostly in accord with her assessment of this unconventionally politicized play (review) I am a little unhappy with this latest production. This serenely disquieting play, about two Americans and two Irani, is mostly notable for the abstracted textures in the text and how they also affect the tone of the performances. In it, a young man, conflicted not only by his personal goals, but also by those perpetrated by his country, is also anguished by the insensitivity of his mother.

Intruding into their irreconcilable relationship are a young woman studying literature in America and her religious fundamentalist/fanatical brother who has come to bring her back home to Iran. Slowly we begin to realize how, given the realities of the world, each of these people also resides within the confines of a self-imposed personal, religious, social, or political border.

Since Davis has a history with Playwrights Theater of New Jersey as he does with its artistic director John Pietrowski, it is unfortunate that I have some misgivings about Pietrowski's direction and therefore the play's inability to be as captivating or as absorbing as it was in New York. This is, I suspect, what happens when a play is placed in the otherwise capable hands of a director more enamored by the potentially mesmerizing writing style of the playwright than by the need to keep the action in forward motion.

Although I am as impressed as Elyse Sommer was by the playwright's gift for "lovely dialogue," even in the light of a plot that Davis has calculated to get less lovely as it moves forward, the play literally sinks under the weight of Pietrowski's plodding even listless direction. His willingness to indulge the polemic, metaphoric and surreal content at the expense of dramatic persuasiveness is a risk that doesn't pay off. With no hint of a romance in the works, we can only look forward to the prospect of a major plot twist or an act of violence to rouse us from an ever enveloping torpor.

While one is inclined to shake up, or is it wake up, Mahida (as played, however, with delicacy by the very attractive Mariam Habib) we do come to appreciate her fundamentally progressive spirituality as she serves as a bridge of forgiveness and peace between two cultures. As his character is the most complexly considered, Jack Moran also gives the most interesting and arresting performance as Thomas, the young man who befriends Mahida. Although Jane Blass is egregiously ignorant and arrogant as Thomas's mom Edna, we do see her misguided displays of patriotism not only as comic relief but as part of a blind-sided pathology that has infected a large segment of the population. Ryan Shams is all steely glares as the menacing Ramin and that says plenty. Set designer Drew Francis earns congrats for designing a set that is considerably more functional than the cumbersome one designed for the New York production.

Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven
By Russell Davis
Directed by John Peitrowski
Cast: Mariam Habib (Mahida), Jack Moran (Thomas), Jane Blass (Edna), Ryan Shams (Ramin).
Set Design: Drew Francis
Costume Design: Sarah Cubbage
Lighting Design: Richard Currie
Sound Design: Jeff Knapp
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission
Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, 33 Green Village Road, Madison, N.J. 07940. (973) 514 - 1787
Tickets ($15)
Performances: Student and Senior Matinee Wednesday May 5 at 10:30 AM; Thursday May 6 at 3 PM; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays at 3 PM
Opened 04/23/2010. Ends 05/09/2010
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 04/29/2010
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