A dozen half-opened bottles of vegetable oil occupy a long white counter from end to end. Trays and plates heaped with lemons crowd together on a cooking island overhung by a towering stainless steel and glass exhaust hood. Bags and bottles of spices are piled here and there but all that clutter isn’t the only intruder to this minimalist, open-plan kitchen in Tribeca. There are also three rows of chairs filling the space between the island and a book lined fireplace, where an audience gathered one night this week for a performance of Oh My Sweet Land, Amir Nizar Zuabi’s play about resilience in the midst of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria.
That subject might seem out of place in a carefully curated loft only steps from Wall Street. It might also be ventured that the immersive trick of inviting audiences into intimate, real-life spaces has lost some of its power to titillate. But The Play Company pulls off its dare to move the suffering of the Syrian people from our newsfeeds into the very air we breathe (here, perfumed with cumin and sumac), by staging it in private kitchens and community spaces across New York. Thanks to that decision, this US premiere, which follows the show conceived by and starring Corinne Jaber that ran at London’s Young Vic in 2014, gains in both power and relevance with Nadine Malouf as the story’s earnestly compelling narrator.
That narrator is also a compulsive chef, which is why we are in a kitchen at all. So Malouf sautés pine nuts, chops onions and grinds beef throughout this 65 minute show, to make a universal dish of the Middle East: the deep-fried meat pockets known as kibbeh or kubbah. She prepares them constantly, she tells us, to connect with a country she barely knows, as a Syrian-American born and raised in Denver and living in Brooklyn. Like those kubbah whose success depends on a thin “skin” to contain the meaty stuffing, Zuabi wraps an extended metaphor of human fragility – bursting, rotting, cracking and bleeding in the flesh – around nostalgic yearning for a lost, and perhaps irrecuperable homeland.
And although her cooking style might be generously described as devil-may-care – sending raw meat projectiles into the audience at one point – Malouf taps exquisite emotional precision to tell a polyvocal story of the Syrian people’s suffering, beginning with Ashraf, an exiled Syrian living in Bay Ridge who decided “to go back in,” and continuing across Lebanon and Jordan to meet housewives, children, soldiers, farmers, an actor, a lawyer… all with stories of bombings, torture, beatings and chemical attacks. The pain, the broken bones, the blood are real, and indeed some of those stories could hardly be made up (they are drawn, in fact, from interviews with Syrian refugees whom Zuabi and Jaber met in Israel). Zuabi overworks his metaphor at times and, as the director, seals the deal with an unnecessary concluding flourish, but those gripes are trifles in the bigger scheme of this production, whose hands-down strength is Malouf’s iridescent performance. She translates the range of human emotions that Zuabi relates – passion, fear, incomprehension, terror, anger, resolve – with the empathy and imagination of the best storytellers.
PlayCo’s Oh My Sweet Land might have been just as effective in a theater, although I did wonder if it tracked differently in humbler kitchens during its NYC run. Still, as Malouf grabbed each of us twelve audience members with a relentless gaze that ricocheted back at us from the horrors her character has seen, she dared us, knife arrested in mid-chop, onions burning on the gas range, now with a new immediacy, to look away. She knows, as we do now, too, that in doing so, we will have parted with some of our own humanity.