Yussef El Guindi has long been acknowledged as an excellent playwright whose work focuses on Arab and Muslim experience in the United States, and with the excellent “Hotter Than Egypt” his reputation should rise even higher.
Unusual for this playwright, the setting of the piece is Egypt, where vacationing American couple Paul and Jen are the outsiders and local tour guides Seif and her fiance Maha are the locals.
In the opening scene, multiple themes are beautifully laid out as Paul tries to perform tolerance and cultural sophistication by criticizing his wife Jen’s choice of swimming pool attire. He accuses her of being “practically naked” in the eyes of the local culture, and therefore incredibly insensitive. It doesn’t go over well. Jen is hurt and confused, and tour guides Seif and Maha are quick to try and cover up the conflict. Although, privately, Maha does wonder why a woman would expose herself “like that.”
The scene brilliantly reveals the fissures underlying this apparently light hearted vacation with which Paul and Maha are celebrating their anniversary of twenty-plus years of marriage. There are fissures opening between the vacationing couple, between the soon to be married Seif and Maha, and between American and Egyptian culture. And, to further amplify the theme of falling apart, the play is set during the Egyptian revolution of January, 2011 and demonstrators are in the streets.
As an observer of intimate relationships, Guindi’s insight and his ability to express it in remarkable dialogue is on a par with the likes of Harold Pinter or Edward Albee. Rarely have we seen the experience of a married couple under stress exposed as vividly as are Paul and Jen, and the younger, engaged couple of Seif and Maha are a perfect foil.
Nor are the additional themes of revolution, colonialism, and cultural patronization given short shrift. It all makes for a heady combination.
Over the course of multiple scenes, intimacies and history between the two couples are gradually exposed. In a series of two-person encounters, the relationships are laid absolutely bare. The director has made sure that his actors have polished their work to an amazing degree. This is acting on the high wire and it is quite thrilling and involving.
At the heart of the play is Jen Taylor’s marvelous performance as Jean, a woman on the verge of understanding the truth about her marriage for the first time, and perhaps ready for liberation.
As her husband, Paul, actor Paul Morgan Stetler keeps his character likable even though his willful failure to understand much about his wife or anything else is cringe-worthy.
Wessim No’mani and Naseem Etamad are superb as a young tour guide and her excitable fiance (Seif and Maha), bringing depth and dimension to their characterizations.
Rounding out the cast is Ahmad Kamal, who brings to life several unnamed local characters (a Boatman, a Museum Guard, and a Doorman) with consummate skill.
Director John Langs and a team of designers all offer excellent work.
Lastly, I should mention that although this play is not quite a comedy, Guindi’s beautifully written dialogue often presents insights of such exquisite precision and ambiguity that we are forced to laugh, often and loudly.
In short: Excellence all the way around. As plays go, “Hotter Than Egypt” is hotter than most.
“Hotter Than Egypt” plays at Marin Theatre Company through April 24. For further information or to purchase tickets, click here.
Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
‘Hotter Than Egypt’ by Yussef El Guindi. Rolling World Premiere produced by Marin Theatre Company in collaboration with ACT Seattle. Director: John Langs. Dramaturg: Nakissa Etamad. Scenic Designer: Carey Wong. Costume Designer: Melanie Burgess. Lighting Designer: Jeff Rowlings. Sound Designer: Johanna Melamed. Composer: Nihan Yesil. Dialect Coach: Lynn Sofer. Intimacy and Fight Director: Ian Bond. MTC Props Lead: Liam Rudisill.
Paul: Paul Morgan Stetler. Seif: Wasim No’mani. Maha: Naseem Etamad. Jean: Jen Taylor. Boatman/Museum Guard/Doorman: Ahmad Kamal.