Hassan and Sylvia
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 14, 2010
Some plays linger in the mind long after you see them, and, onionlike, reveal new layers as you peel away what you thought you saw on the surface. Such a work is Manuel Igrejas's Hassan & Sylvia, which is premiering at the Fresh Fruit Festival in a beautifully realized production helmed by David Hilder. I can't stop thinking about it, and finding myself surprised by the new discoveries I make as I ponder it.
It begins in a tiny studio apartment in a place called Cedar Chips, New Jersey (this is not a real town, as far as I can tell), in the outer suburbs miles from Manhattan. When the lights come up, we discover a man lying on the floor of this apartment—not dead, we are immediately assured, but dead inside, weighed down by terrible grief and, we come to understand, loneliness, desperation, and desolation. He's 33 years old, and his lover of 15 years-standing died a few months ago (the lover, Vincenzo, was a much older man, and died of a heart attack). There was no will, and so Vincenzo's blood relations sold Vincenzo's house. Our protagonist was essentially written out of Vincenzo's history, and that's why he's alone in this tiny apartment, plodding away at a day job he hates and watching reruns of The Golden Girls at night.
At this point, I thought I knew what kind of play this was going to be, and I was intrigued: here at last was a drama to really explore the effects of a society where same-sex partners are mostly denied legal/civil rights that opposite-sex partners take for granted. But Igrejas has something entirely different in mind...
The scene shifts to a second-rate piano bar on West 46th Street, where our hero has come to hear his friend Ozzie sing. Also in this establishment are a striking couple—a glamorous-looking middle-aged woman and a younger, handsome, swarthy gentleman who we will soon learn is of Moroccan descent. They are the Hassan and Sylvia of the play's title, and they hone in on our leading man, inviting him to join them at their table and quickly seducing him. They seem to epitomize an unattainable lifestyle that most of us only read about in the trendiest of magazines: Hassan says he makes parties, and Sylvia doesn't say right away what she does at all, other than help Hassan with his English and serve as a kind of chaperone/buffer for his effusive and excessive childlike exuberance.
I don't want to give away too much more about what happens, except to tell you that Igrejas keeps you guessing about just who everyone really is in this play. It's a story, ultimately, about desire, and what we're willing to do for it; it's also, startlingly, an exploration of what it means to be a whore, and Igrejas demonstrates rather conclusively that while we think we know all about that thank you very much, in fact there are subtleties and nuances to the topic that should make us think twice before we judge anyone who sells some part of themselves to try to realize some security in their lives. Hassan & Sylvia, as unsentimental a play as I've ever seen, is also one of the most humanist. It's also very grown-up (which is not the same as "adult," though the talk about sexuality is frank and uncensored).
Igrejas and Hilder play with the fourth wall a lot; I've been seeing a bunch of magic realism plays lately and in its way, Hassan & Sylvia is another example of that genre, as its characters move rather more freely through time and space than your average earthbound human.
Six actors do fine work to tell this jolting, intimate story. Eric Kever Ryle is the Narrator, and also plays various waiters (who may in fact be the same waiter). Vandit Bhatt plays Hassan with disarming, youthful charm, and Karin de la Penha is riveting as the enigmatic Sylvia. Casey Burden plays Ozzie and the entirely different Jimmy (Hassan's driver). Marilyn Benard stops the show (literally, at least at the performance I was at) as a meddlesome old beggar woman who, like everyone else in the play, is not at all what she seems. And anchoring the play firmly and adroitly is the charismatic John Wernke as the protagonist, who is billed simply as "X" in the program—it was not until the very end of the play that I realized we'd never learned his name, and it speaks directly to what Igrejas accomplishes here that we can get to know and like someone as much as we do "X" without knowing who he is.
This is a ripe, provocative, and rewarding play that is a true feather in the cap of the Fresh Fruit Festival. I hope it has a life beyond the festival, and also that the Fresh Fruit keep encouraging genuinely challenging work about characters who happen to be gay.