For two very different productions, comedy exists in the strangest of places. Language Rooms (Pony World) is on now through 5/4.
For NWT’s review of ACT/5th Avenue’s Urinetown (thru 6/2), go here.
In Language Rooms and Urinetown, two very different shows grapple with similar themes, showing not-too-far-off modern dystopias in which the bounds of truth and loyalty are tested. Each does so with varying levels of success.
The premise of Language Rooms reveals little about what’s to come: something about office politics inside a top-secret interrogation center, in the odd hybrid form of suspense-comedy. What else do we know? Crucially: since it’s written by the immensely talented Yussef El Guindi, a prolific Seattle-based, Egyptian-born playwright, it will probably be a good script. Other than that — little about the play, going in, makes sense.
After seeing it, it’s confirmed: The script in Language Rooms is great. And so is Pony World’s production.
And as it turns out, little about it makes sense to the central character, either. As an interrogator-translator, Ahmed (played by George Sayah) was selected, it seems, based on his commonalities with those the US government often detains on suspicion of ties to terrorism: Arabic-speaking, Muslim men of Middle Eastern descent. But for Ahmed, that employment situation quickly begins to look like an unwinnable balance: supposedly valued for his difference, he’s grilled by his boss and coworker for being too much like the “enemy,” and too little like his colleagues. The examples of perceived slights? He doesn’t shower with his colleagues at work, skipped the office Super Bowl party, and could use some work on his corporate cheerleading in general. Is he sure he’s committed to the team?
It’s absurd, in the middle of the militaristic detention setting, where Ahmed’s boss presents his cheerful invitation (really, orders): that all should be peppy, and all staff are one big happy family. The boss (Kevin, played by Lowell Deo), is an imposing figure. On stage, he appears out of nowhere, commands attention, occasionally stands way too close, and leaves no doubt who’s in charge — but does so in the friendliest of ways. It’s very disorienting.
Nasser (played by Hisam Goueli), Ahmed’s coworker, is a fellow Arabic translator, who seems to exist primarily in order to do the boss’s bidding. Or is he really an ally of Ahmed, trying to look out for him and acclimate him to corporate culture to keep him employed? The role is minor, as Nasser doesn’t really have any mission of his own — he’s essentially either an extension of his boss or of Ahmed — and Goueli makes the most of it. His manner of speaking — he’s incredibly soft-spoken and unfailingly calm — adds to the absurdity of the place.
An Imam (played by Abhijeet Rane), who enters later after making a brief appearance at the start of the play, provides Ahmed with his grounding to his past and, essentially, the conflict with his career and his identity. His questions of Ahmed’s work are amusing primarily in their pivots, but it brings out the multiple loyalties in the immigrant experience, too: among them, family, country (perhaps several), personal sacrifice, pride, and expectations and measures of success. It’s through questions from the Imam that Ahmed’s questioned loyalties begin to come into focus.
For me, the acting of Deo really lets this piece, in all its designed absurdity, shine. He’s over-the-top, enthusiastic, peppy, in a law-and-order environment; exuding words of welcome and hospitality in a secret cage; a crisp, tailored suit in shitty surroundings. Indeed, among other “wtf” moments, he pauses during a tense discussion to do some ironing, and praises the quality of the cafeteria food to a detainee. Another shining farcical moment: as a team-building exercise, Come up with 5 positive things about the last prisoner you interrogated. He’s not a stereotype, by a long shot. But he does remind me of the buttoned up, excessively charming and snarky den mother RuPaul Charles, sans drag, reminding everyone to put their faces on and to wear their charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent (I’ll let you figure out the acronym) on their sleeves.
As the script apparently provides minimal description on characters, credit the show’s thoughtful casting and the director, Brendan Healy (also Pony World’s artistic director) for bringing out an exceptional level of farce in an unlikely situation, and for making it work with serious content in a way that never feels overdone or slapstick.
And credit also the set design (by Sann Hall), which allows the contrasting setting and sentiments to shine through as they need. The set is spartan — a good fit for the old INS building it’s held in. The floor is made to look (convincingly) like jail block concrete. The three pieces of furniture — a desk that looks like it holds a sewing machine or something at one end, a chair in the center, and a giant mystery box at the other end closest to the entrance — are all covered in black cloth, hiding their true characteristics. The back wall, institutional gray-white tile, is peeling badly, and is framed at the top with square windows that are either so dirty they’re opaque, or just covered with thick screens. They appear not to open, in the event anyone here ever wanted fresh air or to leave — which, judging by the ugliness of the room, they almost certainly would.
And though it fits naturally with the set’s original building (more on that later), it’s a transformation from what is normally seen at the Slate Theater, which has a charm in pretty much looking like a black box theatre at every show. The transformation impacts elements right down to the entrance. Gone are the audience’s entry and egress through the big inviting double doors on the left. Instead, everyone is taken in through a single, industrial looking door. (It’s still open seating, and the new entrance passes right by the theatre’s bar, so it’s not that rough.)
In the staging, one element is so subtle and gradual, it’s easy to miss — or convince yourself, perhaps, that you’re making it up. But no, the shabbily tiled wall behind the action really is shedding tiles surreptitiously as the play goes on. The detail wasn’t called for by the script, but rather Pony World came up with it in designing the production. As Healy explained:
“So much of the script is about revealing the ugly truths hidden under the words people say. We wanted to manifest that in the physical world of the play. Sometimes in the script, this revealing of what’s underneath is literal to the story — who is telling the truth when; what is a lie; who can be believed — and sometimes it is thematic to our country’s immigration history, the disparity between how we often treat immigrants and refugees vs. our Statue of Liberty-style rhetoric.”
Another aspect that may or may not be well-known to audiences: the show, set in a top-secret interrogation facility, is performed in a former real-life immigration processing and detention center. (It’s now called the INScape Arts building, in which the Slate Theater resides. It’s also the room where playwright Yussef El Guindi became a U.S. citizen; the Seattle Times reports, here.) Healy goes on to describe how the tile-shedding trick relates to the original site:
“A tiny detail on those tiles that might not be noticed by everyone is that the tiles removed earlier simply show the raw material of the wall under them. The tiles that come off later increasingly reveal dirt and questionable stains and finally outright smears of blood. We wanted to suggest the questions, ‘What has happened in this room in the past? Will it happen again right now?’”
Language Rooms centers on office politics and a sense of belonging in a very unusual setting: a federal interrogation room, with the look and feel of what you might expect at Guantanamo Bay.
Pony World had another excellent production a couple years ago, in a much different setting (an actual office) that was also steeped in office politics: Suffering, Inc. Nonetheless, Artistic Director Brendan Healy insists it’s not the office politics they go for — it just happens to be an effective medium to look at another Pony World favorite, the absurdity of modern life. I agree.
And yes, Language Rooms is not really about office politics, either. Instead, it’s about people dealing with absurdity and searching for truth; and in particular, it’s about those who are “othered” (here, immigrants and their descendants) navigating family, culture and loyalties in an environment that’s disorienting, seemingly by design. It’s a show that sticks around mentally long after the night is over. Recommended.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.