nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 11, 2008
MUNA: Last issue. Chapter 35 page 7.
PAUL: Duane buys some rock and roll records from Rabbi Samuels.
The foregoing exchange, from the middle of Act One of David Greig's new play Damascus, exemplifies why this well-intended piece goes so horribly awry. Let me give it some context: Paul is a Scottish writer who works for a textbook company in the U.K. Though he is a writer rather than a salesman, he has been dispatched to Damascus to negotiate the sale of an "integrated English language learning system" with the Dean of a Syrian educational institution. Muna is the Dean's representative at the meeting (the Dean speaks no English).
Now, already I was having trouble believing in what was going on—why would a company send an unqualified and unprepared employee on an assignment that is potentially both so lucrative and so hazardous? But then we arrived at the dialogue I quoted above, and I was pulled completely out of the play. Who would expect the Syrian government to buy textbooks that have rabbis as major characters in them? We learn shortly after that the rabbi in the story is planning to emigrate to Israel. Has no one at the British textbook company never had any sensitivity training?
Greig's play is meant to be elusive and romantic: the plot is really about how Paul and Muna, against the odds, fall in love—are perhaps even kindred souls—yet cannot connect in a world where politics and borders and languages pull people apart. The play's title reminds us of a similar romantic story: Casablanca. But when there's nothing convincing or substantive upon which to build such a story, the whole assembly just tumbles forlornly to the ground. This is what happens in Damascus.
A secondary plot features Paul's adventures with Zakaria, the 23-year-old English-speaking clerk/porter/receptionist at the three-star hotel where Paul is staying. (Don't three-star hotels have more than one employee?) For some reason, Paul allows Zakaria to badger him into a double-date with two American girls neither has ever met; and then to go out for a night on the town drinking and carousing. For a play that seems to want to break down the assumptions Westerners have about Syrians in particular and the citizens of the rest of the world in general, Damascus offers quite a negative view of Zakaria, the lone representative of the Syrian masses.
So what we have here, to sum up, is a play that makes very little sense whose characters reinforce stereotypes that it would seem to want to explode. There's also an enigmatic narrator figure, Elena, a transsexual piano player from the Ukraine, who offers oblique commentary in between scenes.
The physical production is as awkward as Greig's script, with an unwieldy two-level set that places Elena's grand piano on a tiny balcony hovering over the hotel lobby. At the performance reviewed, the sound system was misbehaving most of the time (Dolya Gavanski, who plays Elena, is unnecessarily miked; the sound kept cutting off on her during Act One and the volume was unbearably high during Act Two).
Philip Howard's staging is listless and unfocused, mirroring Greig's text. But the actors are all game, with Nathalie Armin making a particularly strong impression as Muna, despite the inconsistencies of the character she's called upon to portray.
I really believe that Damascus has its heart in the right place, trying to give us a bit of escapist romance in the midst of a war zone. But intentions aren't enough to make this piece—one of the selections in this year's Brits Off Broadway festival—at all satisfactory.