Author: Omer Abbas Salem. At: About Face Theatre at The Den
Tickets: www.thedentheatre.com; $7.50-$41.25. Runs through: Dec. 17
Sara and her children are Syrian immigrants with a nice suburban house. Sara (Rula Gardenier) is an accountant, widow and devout Muslim. Lena (Gloria Imseih Petrelli) is a straight-A high-schooler who prefers a cheerleader outfit to a hijab. Ibrahim (playwright Omer Abbas Salem) is 32, deeply closeted and cooks family meals after his day job as a college administrator.
Ibrahim outs himself when Mom and Sis walk in on him having noisy sex with his first serious boyfriend, James (Jordan Dell Harris), a non-Muslim lawyer. Mom is surprisingly accepting but fiercely controlling: Without telling Ibrahim, she enrolls him in "Mosque4Mosque," a dating site for Islamic gay men, using a photo of him at 17. If he's gay, he's gotta have a Muslim BF! So far, the play has the makings of a pretty good farce, but Mosque4Mosquealthough billed as a comedyquickly veers towards serious.
The play's focus is Ibrahim finding his way as a gay man. He admits he needs to work on the relationship thing, not having had previous experience, but he sabotages himself and his love affair because he isn't ready to identify himself as gay in the wider world, and he also cheats on his BF while proclaiming commitment. These are pretty major agenda items that deserve a deeper dive, but they never are resolved even as Ibrahim plunges himself into heavy drinking. Instead, they are cut short when Sara returns to Damascus, despite the civil war there, leading to a final immigration-related complication which ends the play in a completely unexpected way tied to Trump 2017 immigration policies.
This ending really comes out of left field, and leaves Ibrahim's conflicted personality hanging. Without knowing for sure, it's easy to imagine that Salem might have used autobiographical details in the play, but they do not necessarily provide coherent dramatic structure. Salem needs to focus on resolving the primary character arcs, which means the immigration-crisis needs to go, unless Salem can integrate Jameswho offers Ibrahim his legal helpinto the outcome. Salem has considerable writing talent, and Mosque4Mosque is engaging, but there's still some work to do. Gay Muslim characters are rarely seen onstage (or in films), so Salem's voice and insights are important.
The About Face production features a capable cast guided by Sophiyaa Nayar, a nationally-rising director who's worked with Salem before. Rula Gardenier is particularly effective as Sara, with a lot of nuance in her movements and face. Scenic designer Steven Abbott also does a good job with The Den's long and narrow space, placing a square stage in the middle (lengthwise) with the audience on two sides, thereby reducing the distance from every seat to the stage and focusing attention.
Jonathan Abarbanel is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.