nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
February 11, 2007
People don't hear public service announcements much anymore. Before the advent of satellite radio, podcasts, Web 2.0, etc., such announcements were often played on television and regular radio. They stayed the course with a basic message, more or less pounding the same thought in your head, again and again, like a car commercial. Arrivals, the new play by David Gow, has been given its U.S. premiere by Bank Street Productions, and it seems to me that under Dan Wackerman's uneven direction it will remind many theatergoers of one of those tired public service announcements. This is a shame, because the script itself and two outstanding performances are made to suffer for it.
The PSA would read, "Be careful traveling if you are of middle-Eastern descent and work with hydrogen." Gow has chosen to fictionalize (albeit moderately) the truly shocking real-life tale of a Canadian citizen, Maher Arar. In the play, he's named Mohammed El Rafi (an excellent Michael Gabriel Goodfriend); he is detained by Customs at JFK airport in New York City under an extremely broad interpretation of the Patriot Act. El Rafi is racially profiled and verbally browbeaten by American agent Jenkins (an equally commendable Laurence Lau) for no reason other than El Rafi was born in Syria. Before his civil liberties are completely violated, he is given a Canadian attorney, Claire Hopkins (Lanie MacEwan), who vows to get him back to Ottawa. She is derailed (as is the play somewhat) by the bureaucrats above her in the Canadian government, who attempt to bribe her into playing ball and not pressing the issues, as they are protecting their own interests with the U.S. government. She resigns in disgust and works on the case independently, with El Rafi's devastated and angry wife, Laila (Brigitte Viellieu-Davis).
Meanwhile, back in an undisclosed detainee cell run by the Port Authority, the mesmerizing relationship between El Rafi and Jenkins evolves into one of the most delicate and bizarre love/hate sequences I've seen onstage. Jenkins, as the captor, elicits false signed confessions in which the starving El Rafi agrees that he is a "person of interest" to the U.S. government in exchange for a steak dinner. Jenkins parlays this into an agreement to send El Rafi back to Syria, where he is tortured (mostly offstage).
Sounds exciting when I sum the plot up, doesn't it? Then why doesn't it play out like a political thriller should—why doesn't it thrill? Though Gow could afford to trim some dialogue here and there, the storyline is rife with possibilities. The fault seems to lie with Wackerman's interpretation of the ideas of the text. If the play unfolded at its own pace rather than attacking you like oncoming traffic, Arrivals could be a terrific theatre experience. Instead, Wackerman has Jenkins smashing El Rafi at the outset of the play, and there's very little explanation (either emoted or given) as to the rationale for the detention of El Rafi. There are no gray areas permitted with this interpretation of the text—there is a victim, there is the noble lawyer who quits her corrupt government job, there are two evil empires, and at the end of the play there are no apologies made to anyone. The only doubt that creeps in anywhere is when Jenkins occasionally breaks through and ponders acting outside the realm of his government's charge. Without any shading, the show becomes the aforementioned PSA.
Certainly there are some positives on display. Gow's indictment of the Canadian government's complicit actions with conservative United States foreign policy is a bit broad, but effective. Wackerman's use of the space is visually stimulating, with the ¾-thrust space being used quite well via the two on/off ramps for the airport sequences. The lighting, by Joe Hodge, is gorgeous, some of the best that off-off-Broadway has to offer. The torture sequence is both effective and affecting, and Goodfriend gives a terrific, naturalistic performance that counterbalances brilliantly with Lau's Jenkins.
But there's still the problem of the choice to blur the line between fiction and reality. Why bother to write fiction when the reality is so brutally awful, and so much more compelling? Why not use all of the honest details of the story of Maher Arar, a cover-up of baselessly sending an innocent man to Syria to be tortured? Why not add that the Canadian government has just awarded Arar and his family 11.5 million Canadian dollars in damages and restitution? And that Arar still hasn't received any explanation from the Bush administration, and that the situation is affecting Canadian-American relations? Maybe there's a legal reason that the story must be fictionalized, but I believe in this case that the facts would heighten the experience for the theatre-goer.
For fictionalizing the story renders the play more melodramatic, and makes it easier for the audience to distance themselves from the piece, which in turn reduces the emotional impact. All of the elements are present to make Arrivals an explosive piece that indicts two governments and should make an audience enraged at the lack of justice for El Rafi/Arar. But by using broad brush strokes, the effect is considerably lessened. This production of Arrivals finally feels like a a missed opportunity to make a much stronger artistic and political statement.