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A British Subject

This scattershot if well-meaning drama focuses on the real-life story of a British student who ended up on Pakistan's death row and the journalist who championed him. logo
Kulvinder Ghir in A British Subject
(© Geraint Lewis)
In 1988, a young British student named Mirza Tahir Hussain traveled to Pakistan to visit some relatives and wound up on that country's death row instead. Detained over a disputed incident in which a cab driver was killed, Hussain found himself on a years-long roller coaster of convictions, reprieves, and setbacks. His saga, and that of an English tabloid reporter who championed his innocence, is the focus of A British Subject, a well-meaning but scattershot drama from Pleasance Theatre, which is now playing 59E59 Theaters under the direction of Hannah Eidinow.

Current headlines, most notably the Amanda Knox case, would seem to add extra heat to such a story for U.S. audiences, but the play is written and performed too haphazardly to make strong emotional connections to anything for long. This is particularly curious, since the playwright and female lead, Nichola McAuliffe, also happens to be the wife of that tabloid journalist and herself a crucial character in the plot. Rather than adding sufficiently to the story's immediacy, however, McAuliffe's presence is strangely sketchy, as are the rest of the characters.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Shiv Grewal has a strong presence as the prisoner's brother, who gives up a career to rescue him. As Hussain, Kulvinder Ghir has some nice qualities; but he delivers much of his dialogue at such a soft pitch that it's doubtful a majority of the audience can hear him. Tom Cotcher has no trouble being heard as the reporter, Don Mackay, but he delivers a largely one-note performance that fails to cover up the weaknesses of the play.

Many details and transitions throughout A British Subject are glossed over. An immensely important theme is the fraught relationship between Pakistan's militant Muslim culture and the more liberal -- and complacent -- culture of Great Britain. But crucial concepts of that theme, such as blood money and Sharia law, are given short shrift in McAuliffe's script, if they're explained at all.

There are also some hints sprinkled in of a potentially compelling exploration of religious belief in the new millennium. Mackay quotes his devoutly Catholic wife as saying, "A man who doesn't believe in miracles isn't a realist." Yet, he finds himself baffled and impatient that Hussain -- a Muslim whose prize prison possession is a copy of the Koran -- has such a calm reaction to his near-certain execution. More on that spiritual struggle would have been fascinating. Instead, the plot lurches into a couple of incongruous drunk scenes, which McAuliffe underwrites and Cotcher severely overplays.

At the end of the evening, McAuliffe has not made a case for turning what must have been dynamic journalism into a stage play. Instead, A British Subject comes across as little more than an exercise in self-congratulations on the part of two admittedly admirable Britons.

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