Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The play begins in the bedroom of an Egyptian-American couple who have invited a white American man home for a threesome. The couple, Leila and Rashid, are nervous about what is in store for the evening and start to have second thoughts. They also appear to be having some relationship issues that center on a book Leila has written about her personal, previous experiences in Cairo a few years back during the political upheavals, which she has yet to fully share with Rashid. She hasn't even let him read a draft of the book. Rashid is a photographer and assumes he will be working on the book jacket design. We start to realize that their issues go far beyond the contents of Leila's book. Doug is the charming and somewhat naïve man they invite home and soon discover is the person who has been hired to shoot her book jacket.
El Guindi's play is an intriguing discussion on various subjects, including sexual and gender politics and the clash of cultures between the West and the East. The script is full of evocative and complex conversations with debates around the freedoms that men take for granted in regard to both power, position and sexuality; body issues and hang-ups of both sexes; and the nervousness that sexuality and sexual kinks can create, with a cautionary overview of Arab-American relations.
El Guindi's dialogue and characters are realistic, intelligent, intriguing, and very well written. If you look beneath the funny barbs and smart dialogue you'll pick up on the fact that El Guindi has drawn his audience in by promising a bedroom sex farce (there is plenty of full nudity) then changing gears midway into a more dramatic realm to gets us to change and question our perceptions on women, and Muslim women in particular. Just like Doug states in act two when he attempts to dress Leila in a traditional abaya for the book cover photo, saying that it will draw readers in based on their perceptions and fantasies of what Middle-Eastern women should look like, it gives El Guindi, through Leila's character and words, the ability to draw us in only to make us question our preconceived views.
As Doug states in the first act, when he is in bed, naked, and a witness to Leila and Rashad's in-depth conversation on these topics: "It's like a seminar. Without any clothes on."
However, while the play makes for an interesting discussion on these subjects, it does meander a bit and is somewhat repetitive in the fights and debates that are portrayed. Also, it is interesting that, while Rashad comments on how Leila has gone into explicit detail in her book to describe what happened to her, El Guindi reveals little information about the incident in the play and only spoon feeds us a few details. While the ending is especially startling, I'm not sure if it would be more or less effective if we knew more details about what happened to Leila in Cairo.
Director Damon Dering does an exceptional job of ensuring that the shifting tones of the playfrom sex farce comedy to introspective dramanever seem at odds. He's also found three talented performers who gracefully transition between the two styles yet still present realistic, multi-dimensional portrayals.
Jenny Cohen Sanchez is superb as Leila. Through her rich, passionate and powerful portrayal, we clearly understand Leila's struggle and her fight to free herself from what happened by writing about it. Her witty and wise delivery of the comical dialogue keeps us intrigued, especially when the play becomes more serious and Leila's vulnerability is fully revealed. Bernhard Connor Verhoeven shows us that our pre-conceived notions of the hunky, clueless Doug are far from the truth of who he really is. His layered portrayal of this handsome, muscular man lets us see that Doug is somewhat nervous about the threesome and even he has body issues and doubts. In the second act Doug has a monologue about an encounter he had with a Muslim woman overseas which, while shocking and somewhat far fetched, doesn't feel false in Verhoeven's capable hands. As Rashid, Dylan Kim plays the least developed of the characters, but Kim's impassioned delivery allows us to see the hurt and pain Rashid feels even if he mostly comes off as an uncaring jerk. All three also ground their performances with a humorous and truthful earnestness that works well for the shifts in tone of the play.
Dering and Paul Wilson's set design also plays into the two sides of the piece as it playfully portrays a realistic sex farce bedroom in act one that explodes into a fantasy of color in its harem-themed boudoir, complete with hookah and Middle-East patterns and designs, in act two. The ending packs a wallop due to the expert combination of Clare Burnett's rich lighting and P. Swartz's immersive sound design.
Threesome starts as a funny sex farce but turns into a dramatic story of a woman's passionate search for self-identity and reclaimed dignity. With a superb cast and solid direction, Nearly Naked Theatre's production is a funny and awkward yet always compelling, interesting and intimate expose of the tensions and preconceptions we all have on some very explosive topics. It is a smart and timely play with intriguing characters and an ending that is deeply moving in its raw passion.
Threesome runs through February 4th, 2017, at Phoenix Theatre's Hardes Little Theatre at 100 E. McDowell in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased by calling 602-254-2151 or at nearlynakedtheatre.org.
Written by Yussef El Guindi