Review: Dodi & Diana, When a Limited Transaction Looks Like Timeless Romance
A headline-grabbing car crash provides the backdrop for Kareem Fahmy's world premiere drama.
One ridiculous aspect of the mythology that has developed around the late Princess Diana is the idea that she was a young girl utterly naive about the implications of joining the firm. Rooted in misogyny, this notion robs Diana of her agency and underestimates a woman who had the gumption to walk away from the most visible marriage on earth. She understood the art of public relations better than anyone in that downwardly mobile family, and it must have been maddening to have to listen to musty palace functionaries tell her how to behave in front of a camera. No ingenue, she was a Dior-clad Eleanor of Aquitaine.
That's the frame through which we ought to view her budding romance with Dodi Fayed, son of one of the world's wealthiest men, and the guy sitting next to her (without a seatbelt) in the back of the Mercedes as it sped under the Pont de l'Alma just past midnight on August 31, 1997. Much has been made (especially in the British press) of Mohamed Al-Fayed's ambition, his scheme to use his impressionable son to forge an alliance with the People's Princess and score a victory over the British royals — but isn't it possible that she was just as keen to use them?
The transactional nature of relationships (especially marriage) is at the cold heart of Kareem Fahmy's Dodi & Diana, now making its world premiere with Colt Coeur at HERE under the exacting, unsentimental, ferociously truthful direction of Adrienne Campbell-Holt. Except for one late scene, Dodi and Diana are background in this tense drama, echoes of the past permeating the membrane of the present.
Or more precisely, the very recent past. It's August 2022 and married couple Jason (Peter Mark Kendall) and Samira (Rosaline Elbay) are on a macabre getaway: At the instruction of Jason's trusted astrologist, they are going to spend three days at the Ritz Paris with the curtains drawn, vowing to never leave the room. The astrologist insists that a "convergence" will occur on the 25th anniversary of Dodi and Diana's fateful car crash, and that they are the astrological doubles of the dead couple. He also promises Jason big life developments if he follows this advice. But Jason is already a Wall Street banker with a townhouse in the West Village. And Samira is a television star on the rise (albeit one whose most famous role is as a Muslim terrorist). By all accounts they're already living the dream — what more could they want?
As is often the case with Colt Coeur plays, much of the storytelling is conveyed through finely tuned performances, and there are two in Dodi & Diana. Kendall brings the bouncy enthusiasm of a puppy to the role of Jason, his sexual friskiness regularly souring into emotional neediness. A very Canadian kind of restraint, which might seem the height of masculinity in others, barely conceals his nervous desire to control everything. Elbay meets his energy as an indulgent wife. He may talk about having sex, but she really means to do it — and in a kinkier fashion. That their smoldering foreplay mostly just fizzles (realistic intimacy direction by Crista Marie Jackson) shows us that something has broken in this marriage, and both of them are furiously compensating.
The stage only ignites during the final scene, when they are forced to confront what they have avoided for the previous 90 minutes of the play: Jason accuses Samira of using him and his money as a step on her career ladder, while she points out how emotionally taxing he can be. This brutal accounting of their exchange is the most honest moment of the play, and it will have you reaching for the popcorn that you are absolutely not allowed to eat at HERE.
All of it plays out in the hermetically sealed world of the hotel room, where Jason and Samira are left alone, without the usual distractions of friends and work. Fahmy does set designer Alexander Woodward a mitzvah by specifying that they're at the Ritz, but not the €60,000-a-night Suite Impériale where Dodi and Diana spent their final hours. Gilt fixtures and wall-to-wall white carpeting do just fine to create the space, with the audience itself forming two of the walls.
Locked in with nowhere to go, the characters wear outfits that range from expensive activewear to sexy underwear to ostentatious eveningwear donned over room service (thoughtful costumes by Dina El-Aziz). Eric Norbury's lighting conjures headlights flashing down the Av. de New York during the scene transitions, while the ghostly voices of Dodi and Diana (as played by Kendall and Elbay) reverberate within the walls of the luxury hotel (sound by Hidenori Nakajo). A scratchy, somewhat warped rendition of "I Will Always Love You" plays from an old radio — an aural dissent to a culture that places high value on romantic permanence.
Jason and Samira are trudging through their seven-year itch, but it's impossible to know how long Dodi and Diana would have lasted: They had been seeing each other for less than a month when they died. But if anyone was naive in this nakedly transactional relationship, it was the man-boy eager to please his domineering dad. In its own indirect way, Dodi & Diana is a needed corrective to a sexist fairytale.