Playwright: Howard Korder
At: A Red Orchid Theater, 1531 N. Wells St.
Runs through: May 19
A character in David Henry Hwang's Chinglish advises a westerner attempting to do business in a foreign country that he should prepare to chat about seemingly-irrelevant topics for what appears an extraordinary length of time before getting down to the purpose of their meeting. The meeting of American architect Andrew Hackett and Fawaz Othman, minister of culture for the generic Middle Eastern nation of Aquaat, anticipates another illustration of this dynamic: Othman reminisces about his student days in New York City and grumbles about his relatives, sharing personal confidences with a readiness that Hackett finds first puzzling, then annoying, as their planning conferences grow more numerous and protracted, over a period of several years.
Since our playwright is Howard Korder, the reasons behind the delays of a project initiated in 1989, but not completed until nearly a decade later, are not cheerful. It helps to know the history of the oligarchy we know as the United Arab Emiratesthe fictional Aquaat's prototypeand its progression from liberal trade relations with western nations to xenophobic insularity and domestic repression. Gradually, we become aware that the "People's Park" that Othman has commissioned as a peaceful retreat for citizens seeking escape from a troubled world, its grounds replete with a summerhouse amid the fragrant lemon trees that he remembers from his father's garden, reflects a desire to preserve his memories of happier times.
The question of whether and when Hackett recognizes this (perhaps after he's summoned for an audience with Othman's brother, recently elected president, who exhorts the bewildered yank to serve as their spy), or whether his insistence on calling Othman a "client," not a friend, is a ruse to ensure their safety (or propel the dramatic action), is as unclear throughout most of the play as it is unimportant. Under Lou Contey's direction for Red Orchid Theatre, our focus is riveted on the internal struggle of Fawaz Othman, played by Rom Barkhordar (wearing his best Ottoman-empire accent, courtesy of Eva Brenemen, with assistance from Ed Hayes for the conversations conducted in Arabic).
Company member Larry Grimm acquits himself valiantly as Andrew Hackett, a role written as little more than a foil, while Shannon Parr and Emilio G. Robles lend what humanity they can to U.S. army officer Prudhomme and Aquaati leader Najid, but the story we take home is that of two sympathetic men caught up in a world where the winds of unrest blow away all the leaves.