Threesome

A little ‘Medea’ in modern clothes

Seattle playwright Yussef El-Guindi, known in Portland for "Threesome" and "The Talented Ones," sets off a domestic war in his newest play

SEATTLE – So much has happened to our nation, and to the world, since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 under President George W. Bush.  So much that many Americans have simply lost track of the misery, the devastation and the lasting consequences – from mass post-traumatic stress to tides of international terrorism and a scarily destabilized Middle East – that still radiate from that military misadventure.

But anyone with battle scars obvious or invisible hasn’t forgotten. Nor has Seattle-based playwright Yussef El-Guindi.  In his new People of the Book, now in its world premiere run at Seattle’s ACT Theatre, he sheds a sharp light on that war’s intimate effects on two couples whose battlefield becomes the home front.

From left: Quinlan Corbett, Sydney Andrews, Wasim No’mani, Monika Jolly in People of the Book. Photo: Chris Bennion

Egyptian-born, U.K.-educated and now a U.S. citizen, El Guindi is one of a very few playwrights of Middle East heritage to gain a national audience. Since the 1990s he has been crafting intelligent, unsettling dramas that investigate the tricky cultural, political and interpersonal dynamics between contemporary Americans and Middle Easterners.

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Talented. But are they universal?

In the world premiere of Yussef El Guindi's "The Talented Ones" at Artists Rep, flashes of daring, and longing for more

The tomatoes are rinsed, the lasagna’s ready to go, the beers are out. Cindy’s husband is late for dinner, but in The Talented Ones, Yussef El Guindi’s new play that had its world premiere Saturday night at Artists Repertory Theatre, their guest Patrick is more than happy to chat while Cindy finishes the preparations. She confesses a childhood dream, he encourages her, they laugh. There’s a spark there. There’s familiarity in the way the lights come up mid-conversation, the actors munching on real veggies: it’s the kind of everyday platform we’re used to the theater using to catapult us into deeper questions, explorations of ideas that are inevitably billed as universal.

Khanh Doan, John San Nicolas, and Madeleine Tran in “The Talented Ones.” Photo: Brud Giles

The problem with the idea of “universality” in art has been widely acknowledged: what people generally mean by it is something that is written by and about straight white men. They are the generic, universal mode of drama—everyone else is embellishment, specificity. Artists Rep consistently and admirably resists falling into this trap when marketing its intentionally diverse seasons: The Talented Ones, directed by Jane Unger, is not underlined for its status within the season as An Immigrant Play, but presented as a dark comedy about that most universal of topics (at least in this country, where “universal” and “America” are basically synonyms), the American Dream. This balance between universality and specificity—of being a story about everyone, but also about a narrow slice of human experience—is also one that El Guindi strives to strike within the play itself.

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