Three’s a crowd (and Vanya, too)

The world premiere of Yussef El Guindi's volatile "Threesome" joins the "Vanya/Sonia" party at Center Stage

Things got a little overheated Friday night in the basement Ellen Bye Studio Theater at Portland Center Stage, which might explain what was up with all those clothes flying off those beautiful bodies. Contrarily, the air was a touch chilly in the big bed onstage, where Leila and Rashid were embroiled in some sort of weird passive-aggressive tiff disguised as lovers’ banter. So when Doug strode around the corner babbling like a maniac and swinging his altogether with every bare-naked step, the tension broke, and everyone in the little hothouse of a theater started to laugh. Except Leila and Rashid, who tensed up, if such a thing was possible, even more.

Attallah, Franzen, Rains: and stranger makes three. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Attallah, Franzen, Rains: strange bedfellows. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

The setting for this little comedy of extreme manners was the premiere performance of Yussef El Guindi’s new play Threesome, a co-production of Center Stage, where it continues through March 8, and Seattle’s ACT Theatre. It’s already a familiar story to at least a few in the prospective audience: it was workshopped in 2013 at Center Stage’s JAW new-works festival.

Despite its opening gambit – Leila and Rashid have invited imperfect stranger Doug over for a swinger romp in the hay – Threesome is a long way off from a sex farce. If it veers that way with Doug’s nervous-nellie overcompensations (smoothly yet fumblingly portrayed by Quinn Franzen, who has a deft way with comedy) it’s sharply counterpointed by Leila (Alia Attallah) and Rashid (Dominic Rains). Rashid is clearly far from down with this plan, which he obviously resents. And Leila seems far more interested in scoring political points than in, well, scoring. Poor Doug begins to feel ping-ponged in the middle, the pawn in somebody else’s game of revenge sex. By this point it might come as no surprise that, despite all the showy skin, the sheets do not get overly rumpled.

Feelings, however, do. And attitudes. What builds from this beginning in director Chris Coleman’s production is a structure of sexual and cultural politics, layers of misunderstanding and betrayal, inquiries into the meanings of love, and sometimes scathing observations on the Western/Middle Eastern cultural divide. El Guindi has a lot on his mind, and to me, at least, it’s not always clear how the actions onstage parallel his impassioned scattershot of ideas: all that nudity seems a bit like a come-on for the political propositions that follow, like Doug’s story of the Arab woman luring him into an alley for ulterior reasons. The contrast in Leila and Rashid’s minds between their Arabic backgrounds and their American realities is crucial, but in what ways? Leila’s desire for a three-way might represent a Middle Eastern view of the West as a licentious culture, a place where you can do things you’d never do at home. Then again, what’s home? Cairo, or America? Or it might be her extreme reaction to the Islamic world’s view of the submissive role of women. Doug might represent the ugly American, open and impulsive and friendly but also a little dimwitted and unresponsive to cultural variations and capable of extreme cruelty and stupidity on foreign ground: exotic orientalism rears its unsightly head. Then again, he might not represent anything but himself: after all, as he points out, Leila and Rashid invited him over. And what of Rashid? Is he wrong to expect a little commitment on Leila’s part? Is she wrong to make decisions as if what he thinks doesn’t matter? How open can a relationship be and still be a relationship?

There’s a lot to sift through here, including the nature of imperialism and the culture of rape. And after a somewhat awkward beginning (in what is, after all, an intentionally awkward scene) the three actors carry it through bravely and expertly, with a fine blend of humor and fervor. When things get a little preachy, they preach like they believe it. The play has a string of “reveals,” culminating in a big one that’s clearly metaphorical, but I’m not sure I understand all the metaphors. There’s so much going on that things seem a little muddled. On the other hand, it’s a muddled world that El Guindi’s exploring, filled with contradictions and deep histories and misunderstandings and conflicting priorities. Maybe a little muddle is what it’s all about. The opening night audience gave the performance a standing ovation, and I don’t think it was just for the skin.

*

From left: Nick Ballard (Spike), Carol Halstead (Masha), Andre Sellon (Vanya), Sharonlee McLean (Sonia). Photo: Patrick Weishampel

From left: Nick Ballard (Spike), Carol Halstead (Masha), Andre Sellon (Vanya), Sharonlee McLean (Sonia). Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Meanwhile, upstairs on the Main Stage at PCS, Christopher Durang’s expansive comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is keeping audiences laughing and houses packed. It’ll be hanging around another week, through Feb. 8, continuing the play’s somewhat surprising sweep through the affections of the American theater system, where it’s been the most frequently produced play of the past year.

When Durang’s comic riff on Chekhov opened at Lincoln Center in 2012 the New York Times’s Ben Brantley called it “a sunny new play about gloomy people,” and that seems about right. Brantley also noted that it lacks the punch of some of Durang’s wilder, more acerbic plays, and that seems right, too. You can think of it as a bit like Durang’s version of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness: not his greatest play, but warm and uncharacteristically optimistic and pitched straight to the mainstream theater audience’s sweet spot. Nothing wrong with that, and sometimes, frankly, it’s a blessed relief.

Director Rose Riordan’s Center Stage production is sweet and charming in a baroque, chamber-music sort of way, just outrageous enough to tickle your funnybone without seriously disturbing any deeper areas of the psyche. As several reviewers have already noted, Sharonlee McLean is an absolute stitch as Sonia, the terminally bored adopted sister who has an unrequited crush on definitely-not-blood-brother Vanya, who happens to be gay. Well, that’s life.

I was also, I decided after a bit of reflection, taken with Eden Malyn’s fey, Carol-Kane-in-ditzy-mode performance as Nina, the fresh young thing from down the road. Nina really seems the most level-headed, sensible one of the bunch, and you might therefore expect a level-headed, sensible interpretation. But actuality and appearances are so often a mismatch, and I like that Nina’s practicality comes in an otherworldly package: why not? I’ll also note Andrew Mellon’s rendition of Vanya’s late-in-the-play unshackling from his lassitude to deliver what can only be called an extended existential rant. It’s the scene that shakes things up, a bit – not as astonishing as Valere’s bone-shattering, 15-page monologue in David Hirson’s La Bete, a play that already rocked the boat of expectation by being delivered entirely in iambic-pentameter rhyming couplets, but enough of a shakeup to remind the audience that this is, after all, Christopher Durang, and the ordinary way of doing things will be deviated from. (Including, it seems, the commonly received ban on ending a sentence with a preposition.) A little deviance in the theater isn’t a bad thing.

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