Dov and Ali
nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
June 10, 2009
In Dov and Ali, currently playing at the Cherry Lane Theatre in a production by The Playwrights Realm, Dov is a thirtysomething stalled Ph.D. candidate who teaches English Literature at a Detroit high school; he wears his kippah to class and urges students to read and think independently. One such student is a perpetually tense, ferociously inquisitive young man named Ali, who seems inclined to argue with Dov about everything, from the motivations of the characters in Lord of the Flies to the validity of Israel's existence. Theirs is a fascinating dynamic, and when Dov and Ali stays in the classroom, sharp ideas are offered via cool words exchanged between intriguing characters predisposed to dramatic conflict.
Yet the narrative landscape of Dov and Ali ranges far and wide. Dov lives with Sonya, his shiksa goddess girlfriend, whom he has kept a dirty secret from his devout parents. Theirs is a relationship at a crossroads, with Dov apparently unwilling to steer and Sonya unrelenting on the throttle. (Though played by a sexy and doofily charming actress, Sonya's words and actions range from insensitive to appalling to borderline nutso, and Dov is a nebbishy collection of tics and neuroses. There seems little for an audience to root for in this odd pairing: a problematic thread in the otherwise effective Dov and Ali shroud.)
Meanwhile, Ali is troubled by a budding romance between his younger sister Sameh and a boy their family has denounced as not "a good Muslim." Though Sameh appears occasionally as a tangible character in the time and world of the rest of the ensemble, she is more oft presented as an omniscient narrator (in the tradition of Our Town's Stage Manager, or the son in Side Man, or countless other memory play puppet-masters).
Ali struggles to reconcile the rigidity of his spiritual upbringing and cultural trappings with his affection for his sister and the influence of Detroit's infidels, while Dov strives to please his family, find his faith, and figure out what to do with Sonya. Parallels are drawn, the horrid (and arguably xenophobic) fate of Sameh is revealed, and the characters in support of Western Democracy are granted one last Allenesque meet-cute in a park; the nefarious tendency of religion to—in the words of Christopher Hitchens—"poison everything" is writ large.
Dov and Ali boasts an attractive, appealing cast, and includes some very strong performances. Utkarsh Ambudkar conveys with simplicity and sincerity the intense sure-headedness of a teenager, making his Ali an eminently watchable, engrossing character. As Sonya, Heidi Armbruster's warmth, humor, and charm go a long way toward softening an otherwise relatively unsympathetic woman who shows disregard for her boyfriend's faith and familial obligations at every turn. Adam Green and Anitha Gandhi round out the cast as Dov and Sameh, respectively, and do so with conviction and earnestness, though Gandhi has a tendency to eyeball her marks; she crosses with eyes lowered, arrives, and attempts to re-engage the scene.
Dov and Ali is occasionally hindered by blocking and staging conventions that seem visibly at odds with the impulses and intuitive behavior of the ensemble: actors turn their backs when avoiding a conversation, are chased in circles when truth is pursued, and stand in profiled stillness during mano-y-mano scenes of conflict (this last, however, does yield a striking moment of violence). Most problematic is the means in which the character of Sameh has been utilized. Intended to haunt the proceedings, ever present, her power and purpose are undercut by constant blackouts and scene shifts; rather than drive the narrative or conduct the proceedings, Sameh's asides and monologues tend to become lost amidst the duologues of (and with) her costars. Occasionally, Sameh stands behind translucent scrims or just past the periphery of the stage, and it is unclear if her half-observed presence is always intentional; perhaps this is intended to metaphorically reflect the hijab that adorns her head (she is present if not always seen), though the actress often distracts by fidgeting at these times with her hair and costume.
Still, Dov and Ali is not a bad evening of theatre. Anna Ziegler's beguiling script crackles with nuance and wit, referring directly and indirectly to politics, current events, and literature. The scenic design by Steven C. Kemp is beautiful and ingeniously versatile, and is complimented by bold lighting by Traci Klainer. Boasting some fine performances, Dov and Ali dares to probe territory worth pondering, even if few answers are ultimately revealed.