Twenty minutes into The Profane, a new play by the young playwright Zayd Dohrn at Playwrights Horizons, a certain discomfort settles in.
It’s not the wincing discomfort that comes with the recognition of seeing a work that cuts too close to the bone, the play a grotesque version of your own self or experience on stage. And it is not the kind of discomfort that comes with witnessing hard and unpleasant truths being played out before you.
Rather, it is the kind of discomfort that comes with realizing you have settled in for an hour and forty minutes with a real clunker. It’s the discomfort that comes from watching actors look as if they are reading their lines off cue cards planted inside their foreheads somewhere. It’s the discomfort that comes from hearing dialogue that announces its Big Themes with all the subtlety of a neon billboard on the Vegas Strip.
“I know what you’re thinking. Can you at least try to keep your prejudice in check for the weekend,” daughter Emina says to father Raif as Sam, the boyfriend she has brought home for Thanksgiving weekend, helps out Mom in the kitchen—a line that sounds like it was ripped from an after-school special.
The mind starts to wander to the hour or so henceforth when Raif and Sam embrace and the old man renounces his prejudice once and for all, and the schlock we will have to wade through the get to this inevitable denouement.
Toss in a couple of lines to flatter the hometown audience (“Your homeland is Greenwich Village!” Emina says; “Yes, which thank god is practically its own nation-state” her father replies), and the glow from digital watches being checked starts to compete with the stage lights.
After those first twenty minutes or so though there is a shift.
The second kind of discomfort gives way to the first as The Profane complicates its daughter-takes-boyfriend-home-to-disapproving-parents story, turning it into something more profound and subverting audience expectations in the process. That the actors—especially Tala Ashe as Emina—find their footing helps too.
Raif (Ali Reza Farahnakian) is a writer of some renown, ensconced in his booklined, yes, Greenwich Village living room.
He is an immigrant—although he insists on the term “exile”—from an unnamed majority-Muslim country.
His exile isn’t spent pining over a lost world; rather he rejects all that, as attested to by the bottle of single-malt Scotch on his desk, the permissive attitude he takes towards his other daughter (a sexually adventurous bartender), and his books, which one gathers are something like James Joyce meets Ayaan Hirsi Ali, contain a full disavowal of the old world.
Raif and his wife Naja (Heather Raffo) try to hold on to a disappearing world of books and ideas and dance, and an almost-religious devotion to free-thinking and secularism.
So it figures, of course, that Sam is the son of conservative Muslims, the type that keep religious traditions intact in insular suburban communities, that despite an unworldly disposition become wildly successful through doing the kind of work that educated Americans of all types disdain (in this case, selling restaurant equipment).
If this is where the story stayed, stuck in that overstuffed downtown living room, it would have been too uncomfortable to have remain sitting throughout it. But it gets better. Sam, the son of the religious parents, is undergoing a crisis of faith himself. Is Emina rebelling in the way that all college kids do, or searching for meaning in just the way her parents have urged her?
This all comes to a head when the parents meet at Sam’s parents’ palatial house in White Plains, where despite the surface similarities worlds must collide.
Dohrn, the playwright, has his thumb on the scales a bit here. The conservative couple are far more open-minded and forgiving than their city counterparts, and a hell of a lot more fun too, never mind fun to watch, especially Peter (Ramsey Faragallah,) Sam’s father.
As much as Raif likes to compare himself to Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, watching his daughters defy him one by one, it is Peter, who under the direction of Kip Fagan, has the milkman’s warmth and comic timing.
And speaking of levels of discomfort, it should not go unremarked upon that Dohrn is committing an act of, if not cultural appropriation, at least of cultural voyeurism.
The playwright is neither the son of liberal nor conservative Muslims, but of Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, the leaders of the Weather Underground.
The first four years of his life were spent on the run, hiding out after a series of violent actions his parents committed to protest the Vietnam War and the U.S. government.
Wading out into these waters isn’t an impossible task, but it may well be ill-advised (as witnessed by the recent controversy of Dana Schultz’s painting of Emmett Till at the Whitney Biennial), and it’s hard not to cringe when the play traffics in ethnic and religious stereotypes.
To wit: “I feel like I’ve come to his tent, to haggle over a bridal price,” Raif says at the White Plains parent meet. “And now I’m supposed to offer him so many goats.”
No one would, or should anyway, argue that Dohrn is condemned to only write about white people. He deserves credit for showing a slice of American life that goes largely unremarked upon, and the warmth and intimacy of the staging and direction allows the play to get away with moments that could otherwise come across as cringeworthy.
Dohrn has said that his real interest in playwriting is in the pressures and constraints that come with complicated family situations. His best-known previous work, Sick, was about a Manhattan family obsessed with dirt and pollution and it too centers around a significant other brought home to meet the parents.
Certainly, the situation here—of the collision between two parts of the immigrant experience—crackles with a kind of energy. It could use more exploration. But The Profane, even if it shakes off its slow start, is weighed down with too much weakness, especially the too often clunky dialogue and the seemingly tacked-on last scene to feel much like a proper home for its clever set-up.
The Profane runs until April 30 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, NYC. Book tickets here.