The onions sizzle, enticing us with their promise. We are drawn in by this irresistible aroma and are fully captive before we ever notice that the smell in the air has transformed to the foul stench of burning onion flesh. By then, it is impossible to get it out of our noses. Amir Nizar Zuabi's Oh My Sweet Land is full of such heavy-handed food metaphors, spoken and unspoken. If you're in the NYC area, it is likely taking place in a kitchen near you, bringing the Syrian Civil War into your neighborhood whether you like it or not.
This novel production by the Play Company enlists kitchens in private homes across the city, spaces as foreign to us as they are for the lone performer, the very capable Nadine Malouf. She's our chef and storyteller for 65 minutes, cooking a plate of kibbeh as she tells us about the incredible journey she has recently taken.
It all starts when our narrator meets and falls in love with Ashraf, a Syrian man exiled to Bay Ridge following a threatening encounter with the Mukhabarat (the secret police). She hopes he will stay by her side, but knows that he feels too guilty about leaving his wife and daughter as refugees in Lebanon. Without warning, he leaves her; but like a Syrian-American Tammy Wynette, she decides to stand by him no matter what and follows him to the Middle East.
Her first stop is Lebanon, then Jordan, and finally Syria itself. Along the way, she meets Syrian refugees with increasingly desperate and heartbreaking tales. There's the woman whose husband survived a brutal stabbing, only to have his respirator tube slashed by soldiers in Homs hospital. Then there's the popular actor who joined the protests and was promptly abducted by the Mukhabarat. He didn't realize that, when they asked for his autograph, they would use it for a false confession.
Zuabi was inspired to write Oh My Sweet Land after conducting a series of interviews with Syrian refugees in Jordan, and sometimes that research becomes glaring. The hunt for Ashraf stops and these secondary stories take over. That's not such a bad thing, though, since they are far more compelling than the central plot, which begins to feel like cheap rice under bloody red meat.
Malouf conveys these side roles with understated elegance, giving them distinguishing characteristics without devolving into caricature. A shift of her eyebrows and a half-step modulation of her voice and suddenly she's a young girl, enthusiastically sharing how she survived a bombing. As she cooks, Malouf puts the emotion of the moment into her technique: She tenderizes the meat with her rage, frantically slices an onion with her anxiety, and stuffs the kibbeh with her hope. Her piercing eyes are like glimmering beacons, summoning each of us forward with direct contact. It's the perfect approach to a character that is both irresistibly engaging and possibly a little crazy.
Zuabi (who also directs) garnishes Malouf's performance with stage effects that enhance what she is already doing without distracting from it. As she describes a car ride, we hear the tires on gravel via the churning of a food processor (resourceful sound design by Mark Van Hare). Nicole Pearce's attractive lighting subtly intensifies with our somewhat unhinged narrator's tone. With few exceptions, Zuabi's staging and Malouf's performance regularly cover for an undercooked script.
A final, haunting image reinforces our suspicion that our protagonist might be off her rocker. After all, who but a bunny boiler would follow a married man all the way to a war zone just to say hello? It's truly the kind of love one only hears about in movies, pop songs, and restraining orders.
Such "romantic" clichés only serve to frustratingly detract from the very real stories of the uncivil war in Syria, which is rapidly becoming the Spain of our generation: a concentrated bloodbath that augurs darker days for all of us. Zuabi clearly wants to highlight these stories, so he should have done just that, without relying on a dubious love story to whet our appetite.
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