Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven


By Russell Davis. Directed by Will Pomerantz. At Signature Theatre's Peter Norton Space. (CLOSED)

Allegory and "meet-cute" romance combine to form "one of the most sensitive and troubling post-9/11 plays I've ever seen" (David Cote) or clash to leave the civilizations it discusses "clumsily rubbing against each other" (Elizabeth Vincentelli). For most critics, good acting once again rescues shaky text from its symbolic excess and steers the play back toward the story at its center. But like the quadrilateral arrangement of ideologies embodied by the four characters, this story seems to cancel itself out to a basic affirmation of "moderate" culture. As Sam Thielman at Variety puts it: "What good is theatre that presents the audience with all its favorite opinions?"

Time Out New York A
(David Cote) In its low-key but eventually menacing way, it stands out as one of the most sensitive and troubling post-9/11 dramas I’ve seen ... we get impassioned debate about American cultural and military imperialism, and preaching vies with speechifying for dramatic focus. But despite Davis’s overt political agenda, he never loses sight of his characters’ needs, and neither does the excellent cast or masterful director Will Pomerantz.

Backstage B+
(Leonard Jacobs) This is powerful stuff. On the other hand, Davis tests our patience. The picture Thomas draws and the story Mahida recites are such heavy-handed metaphors that one can only conclude they've deliberately been placed there by the playwright. Similarly, the metaphor of a ferry not running—the inability to sail to safety—is near impossible to miss. Luckily, Pomerantz asks the actors to play the play, not the symbolism, and it works. If Pawk overplayed the mawkish mother, she wouldn't be so charming. If Moayed underplayed Ramin's loathing of the West, he wouldn't ooze menace.

Curtain Up C
(Elyse Sommer) Overall, this is a quiet and somewhat too talky play. Though much of that talk is well written, there's an inevitable tilt towards polemics and forced metaphor ... Director Will Pomerantz elicits vivid performances from all four actors, though one can't help wishing he had helped Roxanna Hope to go easy on the accent that's so thick that it's at times difficult to understand her. His crafts team is also excellent, especially set designer Mimi Lien. I don't usually like a lot of fussy scenery shifts between acts, but it was fascinating to watch the setup from the bare seaside ferry dock to Edna's house. If I have a major complaint about Pomerantz's staging, it's that by moving the actors so far upstage in the final stage, a crucial incident preceding that finale is likely to be unnoticed by the audience.

Village Voice C
(Garret Eisler) ... once the script's meandering banter gives way to an ugly clash of civilizations, the gear shift seems severe and contrived. Director Will Pomerantz can't rescue the play from those low-stakes opening scenes, but his strong cast keeps our attention. As Mahida and her more militant brother, Roxanna Hope and Arian Moayed constantly intrigue even when the text doesn't, and, as an all-American, Bible-quoting mom, Michele Pawk lends strength and gravity to a familiar caricature ... In seeking to fight stereotypes, [playwright Russell Davis] risks reinforcing them.

Variety C
(Sam Thielman) "Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven" belongs to a line of vaguely political plays that laud man's basic secular goodness and lament his tendency toward faith, conflating Jesus freaks with Muslim terrorists and mourning gentle humanism. At opposite ends of the cultural spectra are Edna and Thomas, a conservative American homemaker and her flighty artist son; and Mahida and Ramin, a liberal Iranian studying in the U.S. and her fanatical brother. Finely tuned perfs and nuanced direction from Will Pomerantz give the play some excellent textures, but what good is theater that presents the audience with all its favorite opinions?

New York Times C-
(Jason Zinoman) Depending on your tolerance for soulful ruminations, the musings of Russell Davis’s “Mahida’s Extra Key to Heaven” will make you scratch either your chin or your head. In a seamless staging by Will Pomerantz that papers over some of the script’s problems, this play aims for a vague, enigmatic tone that is the enemy of specificity ... Such mock profundity wouldn’t be so irritating if it weren’t wrapped inside an explosive clash of cultures that is of urgent importance to the world’s current political situation.

Theatre Mania C-
(Andy Propst) ... Mahida rarely proves to be more than fitfully engaging, despite a fine cast and Will Pomerantz's sturdy direction ... There's a powder keg of conflict in Mahida from the potential conflagration between Edna and Ramie to the simmering hostility, brought on by different worldviews, between Edna and Thomas. There's also a strong romantic and philosophical current flowing between Thomas and Mahida. And given all of this, it's surprising that so much of the play fails to spark to life. Part of the problem is that portions of the work are just overwritten and overly symbolic, such as when Mahida decides that a small bench on the pier can act as "the border" between herself and Thomas. And, when fireworks do eventually arrive, the play borders on cliche.

New York Post D+
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Considering the volatile ingredients in this mix, you'd think the show would be more affecting. Director Will Pomerantz and his cast do what they can, but the earnest text stubbornly resists all attempts at dramatization. Civilizations aren't even clashing here -- they're just clumsily rubbing against each other.

Lighting and Sound America D-
(David Barbour) I can appreciate that Davis wants to treat his subject matter dispassionately, but here he lets it evaporate altogether. Whatever strengths the play possesses are not well served in Will Pomerantz's production, which keeps the action on a very low boil. As Mahida, Roxana Hope knows how to spread sunshine with her smile, but her weird accent is off-putting and her work lacks emotional variety. James Wallert has almost nothing to play as Thomas, so thinly conceived is the role, and he remains a cipher throughout. Michele Pawk manages to reconcile Edna's charming and insufferable qualities, forging them into a recognizable human being. Arian Moayed makes Ramin into an upsetting presence, his manner utterly correct, his face radiating disdain; he makes something powerful out of Ramin's big speech. It's the one moment when Davis makes good on dramatizing the terrible, seemingly irreconcilable, cultural divisions at the heart of the play. The production is further slowed down by a problematic production design.

Time Out New York A 13; Backstage B+ 11; Curtain Up C 7; Village Voice C 7; Variety C 7; NYTimes C- 6; Theatre Mania C- 6; NY Post D+ 5; Light&Sound D- 3. TOTAL: 65/9 = 7.22 (C)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Love Critic-0-Meter. But thought I'd note that Leonard Jacobs gave MAHIDA a "Critic's Pick" so perhaps something in the A zone is more fitting there. And check out The New Yorker's A too.