Syria, America is one of those plays that feeds you bits and pieces of wisdom when all you think you're digesting is an ice-cream cone. The play is nominally about what happens to four friends, all gay and all from a close-knit Syrian community in Brooklyn, once their sexual orientations come out in the open. Yet this fast paced and totally accessible production, filled with a mostly top-shelf cast, is also about larger themes: human betrayal, desire, and what people do in order to fit into a home. As Eli (Bob Bucci), the fiery leader of the group, asks the world weary Rob (Max Ryan): "You think the old times mean nothing?" "They mean everything," Rob snaps back.
The play, written by Lance Crowfoot-Suede, nimbly cuts back and forth between the past and the present, showing how four adolescent boys navigating their sexual and professional desires become early middle-aged men who are trying to cope with the choices they made as young men.
Eli, played with acerbic wit and a kind of dead-on controlled anger by Bucci, is the scion of one of the Syrian community's most influential members. Poised to take over the family's multimillion dollar clothing business, the character is a model of repressed, volcanic emotion. "I'm split down the middle between what I have to do and what I want to do," he says. This, indeed, is the unifying fact of life that all the characters face.
Syria, America begins several weeks after Rob, the sweetly doe-eyed childhood friend of Eli, has performed an alcohol-inspired strip tease in the middle of a traditional Jewish circle dance. Until that moment, Rob, a hairdresser by profession, has been allowed to live in the Syrian-Jewish community in a "don't-ask-don't-tell" kind of situation. After the solo strip, however, Rob finds himself facing the wrath of the Rabbis.
Eli, who has hidden his own homosexuality behind a veneer of upstanding stolidity--not to mention a wife and kids--brokers a deal for Rob. But Rob, a deeply religious Jew, doesn't like the terms: He must sell his business and leave the community. As played by Ryan, Rob really is one of those endearing characters that you want to hug--if only to keep him from looking so damned sad. Rob also knows how to smell a rat, and knows how Eli operates. He asks Eli directly just how much Eli sold him out for. When Eli doesn't respond, Rob explains that he expects an answer. In a move to try to get Eli to change the Rabbis' minds, Rob tells Eli he will show up at Eli's house that night--with Morris (Josh Jones), Eli's boyhood lover, in tow. Maybe Morris can talk some sense into Eli, Rob thinks.
While Eli has been the community's rising star, he has never gotten over Morris. And, as Rob says later in the play, "It's amazing what people can do when the commit to one another. That's what Syrians do."
Eli, now full of troubles, calls Jackie (Matthew Rashid--a George Clooney look-alike), the fourth of the childhood friends, for assistance. Jackie, who once aspired to be a social worker but who was railroaded into working with Eli's family's clothing store, is something of a budding alcoholic. Although once Eli's peer, he is now Eli's eyes and ears in the company, a job he is not only ill-suited for but one that keeps him subservient to Eli. Worse, Jackie's wife cheats on him and he is a bad father to two boys, so alcohol becomes the great lock that keeps him squarely in the sexual closet. Like Rob, Jackie is certainly not headed for greatness--he is merely out to survive this life.
At the start of Act II, Morris shows up as expected, and the ramification of everyone's long-ago personal decisions are quickly played out as part of a narrative mosaic that binds the storylines together.
First, Morris is an opera singer now, having left the community 10 years earlier when he disclosed to his parents that he was gay. That moment, it turns out, defined the lives of all four boys in unimaginable ways. After Morris says hello to Jackie--who has not contacted him since his exodus from the community--Rob takes Jackie to his hair salon, and Morris and Eli are left alone.
Deep wounds rise to the surface as the seriousness of Eli's new job promotion, and what he did to get it, become clear. Indeed, Rob tells Jackie that Eli sold him out to prove to the company's board that he could be decisive. Jackie, who had heard the rumors that Eli sold out Rob, storms out of the salon with the intention of avenging the wrong. In the meantime, Eli and Morris pick up where they left off.
Eli, whose wit and enthusiasm have cowed all the other characters up until this point, simply melts as a result of Morris' charm. In a hysterical scene, Eli describes his children calling him "daddy, daddy"--an important scene, since Eli has heretofore kept hint of any effeminate mannerism well hidden. But, for one quick moment, the intense businessman we have known yields to a Harvey Fierstein-like characterization.
The play then comes to a very serious conclusion that again changes the lives of all the characters involved. Plus, Eli's repressed rage erupts, shining a light on all four of the friends' betrayals. It is a climax that rings true and brings out the best in the cast.
What makes the piece particularly appealing is the way in which the seeds of the characters' future lives are juxtaposed with scenes from the present time. Whether it's the budding love affair between Morris and Eli, glimpsed in all its adolescent awkwardness, or Rob's shutting out Jackie after deciding that Jackie is too good for homosexuality, the actors playing Young Rob (Michael Silva), Young Jackie (J.T. Patton), and Young Morris (Peter Macklin) give admirable performances. Dan Fotou, who plays Young Eli, does a fine job too, but he looks and acts more like a high school athlete, not a young Syrian-Jewish scion.
The play is expertly directed by Derek Jamison, who does a particularly fine job when all eight characters are on stage simultaneously.