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Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran logo
Ed Vassallo in Monsieur Ibrahim
and the Flowers of the Koran

(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
You could call Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran a nick-of-time monologue. It arrives at a time when many audience members would likely admit that they've just about given up any hope of a substantial Jewish/Arab entente. Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's 70-minute counter-argument, translated by Stéphane Laporte, carries the French subtitle "l'homme réconcilié," meaning, of course, "the reconciled man." And reconciliation is the burden of Schmitt's ultimately sweet song. He seems firmly to believe that there's always hope for international rapprochement and that it can begin with one-on-one encounters. Moreover, he suggests with touching conviction that reconciliation can be achieved not only with the alienated Other but with one's inner demons.

The two participants in Schmitt's one-on-one are the title's Monsieur Ibrahim, an aging Muslim grocer doing business on a Paris street populated by Jews, and Moise, a going-on-16 Jewish boy whose mother has run out on him and whose Holocaust-survivor father has retreated into books. Moise, nicknamed "Momo" by Monsieur Ibrahim, begins hanging around the older man, at first because he feels that the sedentary grocer is reading his thoughts. Eventually, he realizes that his mentor is more than a mind-reader; he's a loving and forgiving adviser. Not the least of Monsieur Ibrahim's how-to-live-well advice are a tip about getting along with women by never hurting their feelings and another tip about getting away with saying almost anything if the statement is followed by a smile.

Moise, a troublemaker who is not above stealing cans of food from Ibrahim, loses interest in shop-lifting and other schoolboy chicanery when he learns that his larceny has been observed all along. When Moise's father abandons him and subsequently throws himself under a train in Marseilles, the young man half-jokingly suggests that Monsieur Ibrahim adopt him. Ibrahim -- who, it's implied, had already considered the possibility -- takes the boy up on his suggestion. And so, after rafts of papers are signed, Moise has a Muslim father whom he's happy to call "Dad."

Telling his story in flashback, Moise (Ed Vassallo) unfolds a narrative in which, thanks to Monsieur Ibrahim's dry humor and subtle counsel, every problem the boy has ever encountered comes out all right. (This counsel is offered by a man who rarely stirs from his stool and who insists, "I don't know anything. I only know what's in my Koran.") As the years pass, Moise matures and Ibrahim also gradually rejoins life outside his cramped Rue Bleue business. By the time the father-son pair have taken a trip to the Middle East during which Monsieur Ibrahim is mortally wounded in an automobile accident, Moise is enough of a sensible adult that he's capable of returning to Paris, resuming his life, and even reestablishing a relationship with his mother. A Jew who can claim both Jewish and Muslim parentage, Moise is now the wise man running the Rue Bleue grocery store.

Playwright Schmitt constructs his monologue astringently and includes some barbed ironies. Perhaps the most striking is Moise's history of Popol, a brother whom the energetic lad has never met but whose perfection is repeatedly praised by Moise's bookish natural father. Before Moise ends his tale, Schmitt brings the teasing mentions of Popol to a close by revealing the elusive sibling's unexpected whereabouts. Other revelations, such as what constitutes the real contents of Monsieur Ibrahim's Koran, are equally piquant.

Oui, Monsieur: Ed Vassallo
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Schmitt doesn't completely keep sentimentality from marring the piece. Monsieur Ibrahim is a model surrogate father, gallant up to and through his dying breath. Put another way, he's a wish-fulfillment father. Therefore, the familial love that passes between Ibrahim and Moise is not analogous to the abyss of lost love that gapes between, say, Israel and Palestine. There's an element of the fantastic clinging to Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran that keeps it from jibing with the world of realpolitik. But Schmitt understands that audiences long to believe the possibility that he holds out. Indeed, when Monsieur Ibrahim lies dying, it's very likely that patrons would respond vociferously were Moise to ask them to clap in order to restore the old man's health, as Peter Pan does on behalf of Tinkerbell. The play induces that kind of unrestrained goodwill in audience members -- the kind that 20th-century critics of self-delusion, such as Eugene O'Neill or Samuel Beckett, made a career by shaking a stick at.

Ed Vassallo emanates deep conviction as Moise. Making no effort to affect a French accent as the Parisian youth, Vassallo -- who's tall, dark and husky -- still may have ticket-buyers checking their programs to see whether he's telling his own story. Pacing Neil Patel's simple set (a door in a tiled wall, a table, a couple of chairs) and wearing Katherine Roth's simple costume (a shirt, a vest, nondescript trousers), Vassallo conveys a kid's impetuosity and, when speaking as Ibrahim, a sage's serenity. More than that, without compounding the sentimentality of the script, he communicates the love that the two men share. He is impeccable throughout.

Early on, Monsieur Ibrahim explains to Moise that "I'm not an Arab, Momo, I'm a Muslim...In the grocery business, Arab means 'Open from 8am til midnight and even on Sundays.'" In other words, he's saying that people are most commonly perceived according to how they are defined; thus, Schmitt proposes, it only takes redefinition to change one's perceptions. Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran makes one want to believe that he's right.

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