Broken Nose Theatre stifles laughs and the American dream in 'Language Rooms'
Updated: Oct 4, 2019
These days it takes a lot of convincing for me to sit through a production longer than ninety minutes and that requires an intermission. Musicals are not exempt from this. I had the pleasure of sitting through a musical this year that was ninety minutes with no intermission. Also, let's not forget the Tony Award winning one act musical, Fun Home.
Due to my growing affinity for short plays with no pauses, I was hesitant when walking into one of the many caves of curiosities The Den Theatre contains. Produced by the ever-growing, ambitious Broken Nose Theatre, Yussef El Guindi's Language Rooms makes its midwest premiere. Similar to other companies in the city, they prioritize accessibility to audiences in making all tickets for their performances pay-what-you-can which warrants selling out performances. Well played, BNT in enticing me.
Paranoia wisps around this world until it consumes every fiber of these concrete walls and everyone as practically its prisoners. The play opens in the midst of a hushed conversation between Salar Ardebili (Ahmed) and Bassam Abdelfattah (Nassar), two Muslim interrogators (the only two) at a government detainment center. Nassar confides in Ahmed there's talk of his "aloofness" and "sympathies" with whom he interrogates. Ahmed naturally responds in his most Seinfeld, manic, manner, "Flipping? I'm not flipping", putting his loyalty to his job and country into question. Conversations quickly shift from office politics to personal prejudices all behind concealed cameras and clipboards.
Director Kaiser Zaki Ahmed (current Associate Artistic Director of Jackalope Theatre) helms this haunting tale spanning two hours and ten minutes including an intermission. The result is an act of staggering, lukewarm comedy followed by a devastating heaping of tragedy served cold as a frozen television dinner. All the fluff expected with such a premise is thawed by gripping family drama and the choices we make versus the ones we feel obligated.
Act I seems set up to ensure comedy, but feels more like it endures it. There's tension between the jokes feeling not original enough and the acting unable to support it. I found it more intriguing to dissect seeds planted for Act II. Kevin (Bradford Stevens), aka Nassar and Ahmed's boss, highlights how hyper masculinity is as inevitable to this setting as breathing. He plays the fine line between villain and coach in criticizing their position (as he's one of only three African Americans in the unit) while also feeding Ahmed stabbing digs such as, "You're very sneaky...That's a gift."
A bright spot (and in my opinion, the redemption of Act I) is away from Ahmed's daily tribulations and hearing interspersed monologues from the sincerely sentimental Bilal Dardai (Samir). His moving, vibrant rhythms are starkly different from the tired, sitcom energy established and put a face to the stories of those who are subjected to the scrutiny of interrogations. If you listen carefully, you can grasp the thread that connects Samir and Ahmed. Dardai cleverly plays his cards close to his chest, but when he does open up it feels like a vessel endlessly wading in tides of satisfaction and guilt, desperately trying to find a home.
Any remnants of living in an American pleasantville are torn and stripped away in Act II. Humor manages to slip through and stings. The stakes established before intermission are turned all the way up and you can't help but feel disturbed and intrinsically moved by this play. Ahmed, due to his connection with Samir, is forced to interrogate him or risk losing his job. The tension that comes from one of the worst situations imaginable never leaves the room, and builds in magnitude, unflinching in its horror. Ahmed's previously discussed, questionable, interrogation tactics are put into practice and effects the audience feeling with every stammer and scream, the jabs that he and Samir have experienced all of their lives.
By entering into full interrogation mode, Language Rooms transforms into a triumphant two hander. Ahmed (Ardebili) and Samir (Dardai) hurl years of deeply rooted disagreements and beliefs back and forth in a heated retelling of history. It's a game of catch where there's no winner, but one must be declared. As Samir states, "Just one of us needs to make it to be worth it", a sentiment which strikes deep regarding their dilemma and their entire people.
Much like our nation's current immigration policies, Yussef El Guindi's play leaves us in a state of division and frustration. The ending is extremely unsatisfying, feeling like a cheat but it couldn't be anything else otherwise it would risk masquerading itself as a story it's not. Broken Nose Theatre makes a compelling case here for the two act play. While there are moments of the first you can receive or leave, the second act is a cursed blessing you can't return from as much as you may want to.