"The Profane" Confronts — a Little Too Neatly — Religious and Secular Orthodoxy
Secular people like to think we're smarter: We assume we're more tolerant than the orthodox — any orthodox, of any religion. In Zayd Dohrn's The Profane, now at Playwrights Horizons in a production directed by Kip Fagan, complacencies like these are challenged, as two Muslim-American families face off in an intimate confrontation. Dohrn's indictment of secular prejudice is the most interesting element of what proves to be, otherwise, a carefully staged but overly familiar tale.
Emina Almedin (Tala Ashe) and Sam Osman (Babak Tafti), college sweethearts, have just arrived at Emina's family apartment, a study in Upper West Side clichés. Tasteful artifacts testify to international travel; floor-to-ceiling bookshelves accord the place of honor to an enormous dictionary. The couple's here to announce their engagement, a revelation not welcomed by Emina's novelist father, Raif (Ali Reza Farahnakian), or her dancer mother, Naja (Heather Raffo). Sam's family, you see, is religious. They live in a traditional community in Westchester and represent everything Raif tried to leave behind when he immigrated to New York years ago. (The play avoids specifying either family's country of origin: They're both simply American and Muslim.)
Following an awkward night at the Almedins' — leavened slightly by the antics of Emina's sourly rebellious sister, Aisa (Francis Benhamou) — we decamp to White Plains for a parallel meet-and-greet. Set designer Takeshi Kata communicates equally clearly about this cultural milieu: The Osmans' home is all carpet and gleaming surfaces, and the book on prominent display here is an ornately embossed Koran. But Sam's relatives are different in deeper ways. When alone, they show each other kindness and respect, qualities missing from Emina's sarcastic, sniping family dynamic. Sam's parents try hard — in the case of his father (Ramsey Faragallah), uncomfortably hard — to welcome their secular guests. Even so, unsurprisingly, dinner goes poorly, especially when a revelation about Sam's past confirms Raif's worst suspicions about the religious. Raif's anger is visited on, among other things, that fancy Koran, and vestiges of goodwill crumble on all sides.
Unraveling orthodoxies, religious or secular, is a welcome project, and there's no question that the American public needs nuanced engagement with the Muslim-American world. But The Profane, despite crisp staging and a strong ensemble cast, doesn't offer complex insights. Its plot is too cookie-cutter, its revelations too predictable: families and worldviews conveniently opposed, or a son who loses faith and a daughter who starts believing. Dohrn acknowledges his story's familiarity ("God, I feel like fucking Tevye here!" complains Raif) but doesn't move beyond it. Other recent dramas of immigrant cultures in America — like Danai Gurira's Familiar, staged at Playwrights Horizons last year — imbued their tales with striking cultural specificity. Here, knowing little about the protagonists' deeper histories or inner lives, we're left in the shallow waters of young love and parental prudishness. Maybe Dohrn could have been just a little bit more profane.
416 West 42nd Street
Through May 7
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