Ewen Bremner and Nathalie Armin in Damascus
(© Carol Rosegg)
Ewen Bremner and Nathalie Armin in Damascus
(© Carol Rosegg)
Past, present and future tenses -- both perfect and imperfect -- are explored in David Greig's Damascus, being presented as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters. These elements of language serve as metaphors for the connections, misunderstandings, and regrets among both people and countries. While this is an interesting premise, director Philip Howard's uneven production may leave audiences wondering what point is being made.

Paul (Ewen Bremner) has traveled to the city of Damascus in order to pitch his company's English language textbooks (which he authored) for use in Syria's educational system. He meets with Muna (Nathalie Armin) and Wasim (Alex Elliott), who are supposed to present a proposal to the Ministry of Education. However, Wasim has his own agenda, and it's not always clear what Muna's motivations are.

The play's best scene is a conversation between Paul and Muna, in which the latter goes over all the changes that would need to be made to the textbooks in order for them to be acceptable to the Ministry. Paul's -- and the audience's -- cultural preconceptions and stereotypes are challenged as Muna calmly explains why certain elements of Paul's book cannot work in a Syrian context. This ranges from depicting non-married individuals kissing to what political parties can be named.

One of the weaknesses of the play, however, is that some of the things Muna finds objectionable would surely also be problematic in the U.K. It's unlikely that a standard educational textbook would contain a rap in which the individual depicted talks about having ten girlfriends, or that it would feature a son telling his mother, "You're stupid. I hate you."

There are also a few other plot points that stretch credulity. For example, Paul travels all the way from Scotland to Damascus for a morning meeting, but then claims he needs to fly back later that afternoon. If he does so, however, he risks losing the account since he won't be able to stay to work on the required changes.

Another problem is the direct address narration by Elena (Dolya Gavanski), who identifies herself as "a transsexual Ukranian Christian Marxist cocktail pianist." Gavanski is the only actor miked, and tends to hover near the grand piano perched on a small platform accessible by a winding staircase. (The set is strikingly designed by Anthony Macilwaine.) It's never quite clear what function she serves other than to provide some exposition every now and then, as well as make some cryptic remarks.

Bremner projects a kind of nerdy likability, even though Paul's actions prove him to be a rather flawed human being. Armin is excellent as Muna, embodying the character's intelligence and sensuality; her calm, measured line delivery is often entrancing, and it's no wonder that both Paul and Wasim desire her. Elliott has a few good moments, but doesn't have a lot to work with. Rounding out the cast is Khalid Laith as Zakaria, the porter at the hotel in which Paul stays. He proves to be a more pivotal figure in the play than is first suspected, and the forlorn desperation he expresses in his final scene with Paul is touching.

Unfortunately, the language that the characters use is so mired in layers of meaning that the play often feels like it's trying too hard to convey a message that is ultimately not all that clear.