Emily Swallow, Aysan Celik, Jeanine Serralles,
and Lameece Issaq in The Black Eyed
(© Joan Marcus)
Emily Swallow, Aysan Celik, Jeanine Serralles,
and Lameece Issaq in The Black Eyed
(© Joan Marcus)
While Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit famously noted that "hell is other people," The Black Eyed, Betty Shamieh's promising albeit uneven new play at New York Theatre Workshop, shows that heaven may be similarly afflicted.

In the afterlife, four Arab women from different eras meet up. There's the Biblical Delilah (Emily Swallow), a woman named Tamam (Lameece Issaq) who lived through the Crusades, a suicide bomber named Aiesha (Aysan Celik), and a woman known only as The Architect (Jeanine Serralles). They stand outside what they've been told is the room for martyrs, each seeking something different.

As the play unfolds, the women tell their stories. Delilah's will be the most familiar to audience members, although Shamieh's version is told from the legendary temptress' perspective and contains details not found in the Bible. Each tale addresses the hardship and oppression that inspired desperate action that could be described as either "terrorist" or "resistance," depending on who's doing the labeling. The playwright is careful not to condone such violence, with several of the characters speaking out against it. At the same time, by including a suicide bomber amongst the cast of characters, Shamieh allows for dramatic differences of opinion and impassioned debate.

This is seen clearest in the conflict that arises between Aiesha and the Architect, the two modern-day characters. Aiesha claims that the Architect's life was one of privilege and opportunity, and that the hardships the Architect faced were nothing in comparison to the poverty and political oppression that Aiesha had to contend with every day. "Who makes more of a difference in the long run, artists or militants?" she asks.

The play's title is derived from the myth that Muslim martyrs will be rewarded with black eyed virgins in Heaven. Many Islamic scholars say that there is nothing in the Koran to substantiate this idea, but in Shamieh's play, the afterlife is shaped by what the person believed while alive. Aiesha claims that she had "a hundred men of every hue" waiting for her when she arrived, although she admits "my interpretation is a rather loose one. But, hey, it's heaven. That's what I believed, that's what I got."

Shamieh's premise leads to a few rather crude sex jokes, and in fact, much of the play's humor is overtly sexual. Sometimes it's funny, other times, not so much. The playwright also has the women speaking in chorus at times, which is only intermittently effective and ultimately overused.

Director Sam Gold has gotten capable performances from his cast. Swallow's Delilah is sensuous and charming, while Celik's Aiesha is blunt and abrasive. Serrales infuses her portrayal of the inarticulate architect with a nervous, offbeat energy that works well. Issaq is the least convincing, presenting a rather flat characterization as Tamam.

Scenic designer Paul Steinberg's vision of the afterlife is a vast pink emptiness, which is given a bit more shape by Jane Cox's lighting. Gabriel Berry's costumes immediately give a sense of each character, with period looks for Delilah and Tamam and contrasting modern clothing for Aiesha and the Architect. The most outstanding design element, however, is Darron L. West's sound, which rumbles to life in a way that can send chills down your spine.

The Black Eyed is certainly thought provoking, although it would be stronger without the poetic sequence that begins and ends the play. The conclusion to the poem supposedly provides an answer to the women's (and in turn, society's) plight, but it comes across as heavy-handed and more than a little cheesy.