When Mahida’s Extra Key to Heaven begins with an American guy and an Iranian girl meeting cute on a Nantucket-like ferry dock, you might wonder if you’ve wandered into the wrong play. Is this the edifying exploration of Middle Eastern conflict promised by the politically serious Epic Theatre Ensemble, or just another mild romantic comedy? Playwright Russell Davis does have meatier drama in store, but he sure takes his time getting there (i.e., all of act one). And once the script’s meandering banter gives way to an ugly clash of civilizations, the gear shift seems severe and contrived.
Director Will Pomerantz can’t rescue the play from those low-stakes opening scenes, but his strong cast keeps our attention. As Mahida and her more militant brother, Roxanna Hope and Arian Moayed constantly intrigue even when the text doesn’t, and, as an all-American, Bible-quoting mom, Michele Pawk lends strength and gravity to a familiar caricature. Pawk and Moayed’s second-act Shavian debate finally engages us with urgent issues, but its escalation into lurid sensationalism (and its failure to distinguish Iranian identity from the rest of the Muslim world) undermines Davis’s implicit plea for cross-cultural understanding. In seeking to fight stereotypes, he risks reinforcing them.