Theater Review | THREESOME by Yussef El Guindi at Portland Center Stage

THREESOME by Yussef El Guindi at Portland Center Stage

Thru March 8

2-stars

“If we are shown a penis in the first act, it must go off in the third.”
-Anton Chekhov

Alert: There will be spoilers.

Children and others of a sensitive or bashful inclination, take note: If you sit anywhere near the front row in Portland Center Stage’s studio for the world premiere production of THREESOME, you are likely to get rather up close and personal with a certain male actor’s junk.

That’s because Doug (Quinn Franzen), a somewhat insecure American photographer who has been invited over to native Egyptian Leila’s (Alia Attallah) apartment somewhere in the US to join her and Egyptian-American boyfriend Rashid (Dominic Rains) in the unlikely group rendezvous that gives this disjointed and ultimately unworkable new play its name, pops out of the bathroom stark naked several minutes after the curtain goes up and remains so for most of the first act. Meanwhile the instigating couple mostly keep their clothes on, all the while threatening at any moment to strip down and get the real action started.

But alas, the action – sexual or dramatic – never really happens here. We start off with the appearance of a bang but wait in vain for a real one. And like the feeble attempt at an orgy that is clearly not going to materialize on stage in front of us, Yussef El Guindi’s play brandishes all sorts of guns, ideas and plot points without delivering a satisfying story. What we get instead are some interesting moments and bits and pieces of 2-3 different, somewhat related plays. El Guindi may think he is somehow dramatizing cliches and misunderstandings about women in the Middle East and the west, but the play is a painful evening of bad writing and juvenile innuendo. No doubt there are big important plays to write about the main subjects alluded to here – but THREESOME doesn’t manage to do any of them justice.

When you look at it closely, this play makes little sense. And yet at first blush it kinda seems to work. We start off in classic bedroom farce mode, and the sophisticated and well travelled characters (even the native born Egyptian Leila) crack wise like the wittiest Woody Allen neurotic yuppies you’ve ever seen – at least during the first act. There are serious issues and historical events named and referenced in between the sitcom air traffic, and if you didn’t think about it too hard, you might come home somewhat satisfied that you had seen something important about… the treatment of women in Egypt and the west? Sexual politics and male privilege? Something like that. There’s a lot of emotional energy in the air and the appearance, if not actual presence, of socially relevant content.

Under closer scrutiny, problems become apparent.

If we’re in a straight naturalist play that takes place in the world the audience inhabits and knows intimately, detail matters. If the playwright tells us we’re in the deep south and then all the characters have New York accents, the audience wonders what’s up. If there’s a scene where a character goes in to get a driver’s license and every bit of the process is alien to anything the audience has experienced, people wonder why. If a character is said to be from France and then proceeds to behave in ways utterly unlike anything we know to be French, we’re thrown. Authentic context is all important in a straight play.

And it’s here that THREESOME comes to grief over and over, foundering on plot points and situations that are highly improbable – if not completely impossible. Here are a few examples.

1 – The threesome proposition of the first act becomes harder to understand the more we learn about it. A native Egyptian woman who was raped by security forces during the revolution in 2011 decides three years later (after moving to the west) that she wants to have a threesome with her first generation Egyptian-American boyfriend and an American to demonstrate…? The first generation Egyptian-American boyfriend agrees to it?

2 – The whole second act revolves around a conflict over what Leila will wear for a photo shoot for her new book. The western publisher (we’re somewhere in the US) has decided she should wear a full veil because that is what readers expect. Huh? Can we imagine a photo shoot like this actually taking place in New York, London or Paris? A sophisticated urban publisher with a very smart and liberated female author from Egypt, insisting that she dress like something out of an Edward Said illustration? Inconceivable.

3 – Most damning of all is Doug’s long strange monologue that ends the play. At the close of the second act, Doug gives a bizarre and horribly insensitive monologue to Leila about a paid sexual encounter he once had with “an Arab” while working as an embedded photographer with US troops in what could only have been the Iraq war. But his story makes no sense – and likely could not have happened in the real world. It’s an artificial piece of dramatic scaffolding thrown up to hang a speech on.

Doug recounts what happened:

“one day I’m out on this patrol with these soldiers. And I see this – I happened to see these kids playing soccer. Next to these ruins. So I hung back to take photos. While I was doing that, this woman, in full veil – I see her watching me.”

The woman motions to Doug to follow her down a side street, which he does.

“I decide to see what she wants. My patrol is way down the street at this point, and I know I should tell them where I’m going, but I don’t.”

Doug follows her deep into some bombed out building, where the woman motions that she has a child she needs to feed, and she indicates she is available for paid sex. They have sex and Doug pays her and she runs away.

Everything about this encounter is unlikely – from both the Iraqi and American sides.

First, consider Doug’s side. I emailed the recounted story to a US Army infantryman who served in Iraq. Here’s his response:

“No that wouldn’t happen. As for any civilian running off away from the only protection in the area, it is unlikely unless that person is Chuck Norris. He (the photographer) doesn’t have enough balls to walk away from his convoy. When we escorted with anyone like this guy we were responsible for them, meaning even though we had a mission that day whomever we are escorting is priority 1. Soldiers don’t lose their escorts. Anyone that got too far away or wasn’t paying close enough attention would get a rude wake up call from us and they would spend the rest of their trip inside a truck with a gunner watching him.”

In other words, even if we buy the (totally unbelievable) premise that Doug is crazy enough to leave his convoy in occupied Iraq and disappear down some back street following a woman in full veil – even if we can get good with that (which we can’t) – the soldiers would not have let him. Period. The idea that Doug could slink away undetected for this rendezvous – impossible.

But what about the Iraqi side? Would an Iraqi woman in full veil approach a US convoy, or even a photographer who had gotten separated from his convoy? It seems unlikely. Would a woman lead away a US photographer in full daylight? Seems very hard to buy.

When important foreign cultural context like this is treated on stage, it seems like more thorough historical or dramaturgical vetting is called for. At a bare minimum, you would think that a story crucial to the play’s climax should be checked out for plausibility. The playwright can’t simply make stuff up to suit his story. Is the assumption that the audience won’t know the difference? As Brian Williams found out, getting details about the US military wrong can come back and bite you.

Aside from these larger issues, numerous moment by moment stagecraft, plot and dialogue stumbles litter the play.

* Doug has terrible diarrhea upon arriving at Leila’s apartment for the rendezvous and pays a heavy visit to the bathroom to relieve himself – where he forgets to flush the toilet?
* Right after the above incident, Doug tells a lengthy story about how on another sexual liaison, he crapped all over the bed mid session.
* Leila and Rashid invite Doug to the threesome, but then require he have STD tests done first – which they don’t do.
* Doug, a world traveling photographer, says “I only did it once with an Arab before.” to Leila and Rashid.
* Rashid appears in act 2 so drunk he can barely walk. Minutes later he’s fine, arguing fluently.
* etc. etc. etc.

There’s a lot that doesn’t ring true here. But what makes perhaps the least sense of all is why PCS would squander that most valuable of all theatrical currencies – the world premiere chip – on such an off key effort by a relatively unknown Seattle playwright. This is one of those new American plays that will die a quick and quiet death.

What PCS should be doing (for both financial and artistic reasons) is originating strong new works that will go on and have a life nationally. OSF’s wild success with Robert Schenkkan’s LBJ plays in the past two years shows just how much is possible with vision – and a good writer. But it has to start with the writer.

It is in Portland’s and PCS’s long term interests to develop major local playwrights, and there are certainly several here who can write as well as this.

Why not give them a shot next time?

-Win Goodbody

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