Najla Said in Palestine
(© Sturgis Warner)
Najla Said in Palestine
(© Sturgis Warner)
One-person shows can often be described as compulsive confessions from individuals who have spent a life not fitting in to their immediate surroundings. That's certainly true of Najla Said's thoroughly engaging but nevertheless disturbing Palestine, now at the New York Theater Workshop's 4th Street Theatre.

In this 105-minute chat -- which can only be categorized as a play in the broadest sense -- Said unburdens herself of the alienated feelings she has experienced as the child of Lebanese and Palestinian parents. (Her father, the late Columbia professor Edward Said, was also considered by many to be the world's foremost spokesperson for Palestinian matters.) Her honesty can easily prompt spectators not only to sympathize with her but to empathize -- not because their sense of self is the same, detail for detail and gene for gene, but because it is sufficiently similar at a deeper human level.

Said, now 36, expounds and expands on her conflicted emotions at being brought up as an Upper-West-Side-Manhattan child sent to the best schools and afforded limitless privileges. According to her sharp recollections, she was not only conscious of suppressing her Arab lineage, but wasn't that quick to correct the frequent assumption that she was Jewish. She even jokes that she hardly resisted "kissing more Jewish boys than any gentiles." The show's humor fades somewhat as she recounts the discoveries she has made as the result of early family journeys to the Middle East that she hardly wanted to take and then to later on-her-own forays she underwent to accept all aspects of her heritage.

The visit she goes into at length occurred in 1992, when her father decided to explore the Palestine he left 40 years previously as well as to stop for short stays in Lebanon, Jordan, and Gaza. To say that the itinerary was eye-opening and soul-stirring for Said is understatement. As she tells it, what was awakened in her was a simultaneous dismay for and attraction to a land where she sensed she was as at home as she is in New York City and yet as distanced from that same embattled territory as she often is from her native town.

She's also particularly harrowing when discussing being in Lebanon during the summer of 2006 as the Israeli-Hezbollah contretemps was raging. Still, Said avoids anything approaching political proselytizing during this segment, as well as the show as a whole.

Unfortunately, director Sturgis Warner doesn't entirely trust the message to carry the event. He keeps Said moving like a chess piece across set designer Meghan E. Healey's square chess-board-variant floor, while being underscored by Ray Leslee's original music. But the truth is Said would be just as compelling were she stationed on a stool, simply sharing her life with us.