Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dov and Ali


By Anna Ziegler. Directed by Katherine Kovner. Playwrights Realm at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre. (CLOSED).

Faint praise greets Anna Ziegler's drama about an Orthodox Jewish high school teacher and his strict Muslim student; even critics who consider the play a worthy effort lament its paucity of surprises or complications. Most critics think the cast brings the show some needed pulse and nuance, and most don't quibble too much with the playwright's good intentions. And though most writers don't use the contentious subject matter to score any political points, Nytheatre's David Ian Lee sees fit to cite Hitchens on religion, while Theatermania's David Finkle refers offhandedly to "the Muslim sense of women's inferiority."

CurtainUp B+
(Elyse Sommer) Though Dov and Ali fits the genre of discussion play, this is no wordy Shavian treatise but a tightly constructed play, albeit one that never quite rises to its loftier ambitions and on more than one occasion asks the audience to suspend questioning the characters' actions too closely. Still Ziegler has imbued the discussion with warmth and impressive dramatic flair, especially in her use of Ali's sister Sameh (Anitha Gandhi) as both narrator and active participant. Miss Ziegler is blessed in having her script given a simple yet handsomely realized production by a director (Katherine Kovner) with a solid grip on the mood and flow of the story, and four actors sensitive to the nuances of the individual and group dynamics...Likely to have an active life in regional theaters.

The New York Times B
(Ken Jaworowski) In some ways Dov and Ali could be called a flawless play: the characters speak in precise sentences, their arguments are soundly constructed, their entrances and exits are impeccably timed. Indeed, the work, by Anna Ziegler, is so well assembled that you soon long for it to get messy, to have a character be more than just a figure who spouts partisan viewpoints or who doesn’t always have the perfect line right at hand...Mr. Green and Mr. Ambudkar do commendable jobs of creating nuance, given the script’s demands: even in the midst of passionate arguments their characters’ phrasings are grammatically impressive and their thoughts clearly articulated...There is no real mystery as to the path the story will follow: disagreement, conflict, then, ultimately, mutual understanding. Still, the play, being staged at the Cherry Lane Studio Theater, is never less than watchable. In a time of ceaseless snark and cynicism, its earnestness in asking bigger questions can be downright refreshing. Just because a lesson is being supplied doesn’t mean it’s not worth learning. B
(David Ian Lee) When Dov and Ali stays in the classroom, sharp ideas are offered via cool words exchanged between intriguing characters predisposed to dramatic conflict. Yet the narrative landscape of Dov and Ali ranges far and wide...Dov and Ali boasts an attractive, appealing cast, and includes some very strong performances...Dov and Ali is occasionally hindered by blocking and staging conventions that seem visibly at odds with the impulses and intuitive behavior of the ensemble...Still, Dov and Ali is not a bad evening of theatre. Anna Ziegler's beguiling script crackles with nuance and wit, referring directly and indirectly to politics, current events, and literature.

Theatermania B
(David Finkle) Effective if less-than-psychologically complex play...Towards the play's close, Ziegler has Ali say to Dov, "I just don't think, Mr. Gold -- with all due respect -- that life is about pleasing our fathers." It's a remark that pretty much puts the play's message in a nutshell, which isn't the sort of thing that counts as the mark of a subtle playwright at work...Green, Ambudkar, Gandhi, and Armbruster enhance the work's strengths and minimize its obvious weaknesses.

Backstage C
(A.R. Perlman) There are no surprises. The plot proceeds not by logic but by convenience, with characters knowing whatever's required to advance the dialogue while remaining ignorant of whatever might impede it. The four actors give the performances asked of them. Adam Green is the unsure teacher, Utkarsh Ambudkar the too-sure student, Heidi Armbruster the shiksa, Anitha Gandhi the Muslim woman who dares to think. These are, of course, ideas, not characters, but the actors poke a few nice grace notes through the thick surface. Something similar happens in the writing. In the toss-away moments, where the dialogue is lived-in rather than hurled to make a point, Ziegler is smartly observational. Perhaps she had to write this play, but I look forward to seeing future, less important works.

New York Post C-
(Frank Scheck) This depiction of the ways in which the two characters' ingrained religious beliefs affect their lives doesn't exactly burst with surprises, but its heart is certainly in the right place...This is the sort of play in which the characters reveal their attitudes in bluntly expository fashion, engaging less in dialogue than stilted debate. Its issues are all on the surface and, while the playwright has crafted them with care, she's left little for the audience to think about. By the time it reaches its all-too-predictable conclusion, the evening has taken on the feel of a sociology class homework assignment.

Lighting & Sound America C-
(David Barbour) The playwright, Anna Ziegler, is mostly interested in drawing parallels between Dov and Ali, each of whom is hostage to his religious tradition. It's an interesting idea, even if it requires more sophisticated treatment than it gets here. But she miscalculates badly by making Dov a tongue-tied milquetoast; it makes for terribly lopsided debates. Also, as in Geoffrey Naufft's recent and overpraised Next Fall, the characters' religious beliefs are presented as black-or-white, all-or-nothing propositions, devoid of nuance or sophistication and pitted against each other in a zero-sum game of war...Katherine Kovner's staging is well-paced, but I wished for a little more stillness onstage; the actors tend to fidget and shuffle about a bit too much...Ziegler has taken on what may be the great subject matter of our time. But you can't probe stereotypes and expect to get much of anything. Unfortunately, Dov and Ali trivializes more than it illuminates.

Variety D
(Sam Thielman) Watching Dov and Ali is a little like talking politics with a person who raises the subject but is too timid to have opinions. Playwright Anna Ziegler seems to believe it would be rude to come to any conclusions about Jewish/Muslim relations, the fundamentalist elements in either culture, or anyone's religious convictions...Ziegler's tightly structured play has clearly been cut and polished down to its essence, which is only a virtue if you're not already being glib...Katherine Kovner's adequate direction gets all the points across, but it doesn't add any nuance to the play...The problem with cultural clashes between the West and the Islamic world has surprisingly little to do with anyone's inability to express himself, and the suggestion that religion simply stifles the better angels of our nature is a condescending one.

CU B+ 11; NYT B 10; Nytheatre B 10; TM B 10; BS C 7; NYP C- 6; LS&A C- 6; V D 4; TOTAL: 64/8=8 (C+)

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