Laurence Lau and Michael Gabriel Goodfriend in Arrivals
(© Claudia Mandlik)
Laurence Lau and Michael Gabriel Goodfriend in Arrivals
(© Claudia Mandlik)
Playwright David Gow and director Dan Wackerman are so intent for Arrivals to have the look of a hard-hitting documentary that they've made sure set designer Chris Jones and costume designer Gail Cooper-Hecht have limited themselves to a black, white, and gray palette.

Their reasoning is that the 80-minute play is torn from newspaper columns as recent as this past September about Canadian citizen Maher Arar, a Syrian-born software engineer detained in 2002 by the United States and jetted to his birthplace, where he was tortured due to false, Canadian-government-supplied information that he had a link to Al Qaeda.

The fictionalized piece that the obviously incensed playwright has composed is a barrage of 23 pungent scenes combining the claustrophobic feel of Franz Kafka's The Trial with the inevitable downward spiral of David Mamet's Edmond. Gow calls his detainee Mohammed El Rafi (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend) and assigns him a career in hydrogen combustion development, perhaps suggesting a metaphor for the play's combustible nature.

Stopped in the first scene by an airport customs guard, Mohammed is quickly shunted to an interrogation room where American homeland security agent Jenkins (Laurence Lau) plays good cop and bad cop over a period of time. Eventually the lubricious Jenkins persuades increasingly frustrated and frightened Mohammed to sign statements implicating himself in terrorism.

As the ordeal gathers momentum, Gow introduces Claire Hopkins (Lanie MacEwan), a Canadian lawyer convinced of her client's innocence both before and after she's wrongly suspected by her equivocating superiors of forging too close a relationship with him. Quitting her position on a matter of principle, she befriends Mohammed's ex-school-teacher wife Laila (Brigitte Viellieu-Davis) and guides her into an activist stance. In keeping with the facts of the actual Maher Arar case, Claire's and Laila's joint campaign ultimately leads to Mohammed's release and return. But it doesn't transpire until after he's been caged and tortured for more than nine months.

As Claire tries to obtain Mohammed's release, she encounters several officials who question her intentions, among them Canadian Consulate supervisor Johnston (D. Michael Berkowitz), Canadian Vice Consul Hodge (Sal Mistretta) and Canadian Consul Barbara Murielle (Susan Jeffries). None of them offer help. Instead, they spout diplomatic flim-flam that too often Gow allows to cross the line into caricature. However, there is one eye-popping scene in which Claire, accompanied by the determined Laila, induces Johnston to express explicitly the fear of the foreign that underlies contemporary anti-Muslim prejudice. He says, "All people of Middle Eastern extraction will pay the price...It's human nature, even in a pluralistic, liberal, democratic society."

In Gow's plus column, the author sometimes waxes genuinely poetic. Composing a letter to his wife that he's unable to send, Mohammed stands in an isolated beam of light that designer Joe Hodge provides and says, "I am writing you on a piece of black slate which I have found in my mind, with a piece of white chalk extruded from my heart." In Gow's shorter minus column is his depicting Mohammed's release without providing an explanation as to how it came about. Possibly, Gow thinks Mohammed's return has the Kafkan arbitrariness of his capture, but the effect is that of a playwright rushing to a denouement after suspecting he's put his audience through enough sympathizing anguish.

Playing Mohammed El Rafi, the thin, dark-eyed Goodfriend maximizes that anguish. Far from taking any sort of detached, Brechtian approach to the character, Goodfriend lives through the ordeal as if incarcerated himself. He progresses harrowingly from befuddlement and dudgeon to a terror marked by pleading and hair-raising screams.

MacEwan as Claire and Viellieu-Davis as Laila also seem to be acting in homage to the real figures whom they're meant to represent. Switching from accuser to confidant, Lau has a CIA-operative-like sangfroid that also infuses the performances of Berkowitz as the slippery Johnston, Mistretta as the wine-loving Hodge, and Jeffries as the icily proper Consul.

With Arrivals, Gow is clearly responding to today's disturbing political climate; but as a result of his radiant anger, he's also written a play with a significance that transcends international conditions. He strikes at a basic concern that, once poked, sends patrons out into the cold much less settled than when they enter.