1:33 pm Jun. 8, 2012
Some producer should be kicking himself for passing up the chance to include Lameece Issaq among the contestants in The Next Food Network Star. It's hard to imagine anyone seeing Issaq's audition reel and not immediately sensing her ease before the camera and her confidence in the kitchen.
Her skills in performing and cooking are apparent from the first moments of Food and Fadwa, a new play starring Issaq that she wrote with Jacob Kader. As the bright-eyed Fadwa Faranesh, a Palestinian Christian living in Bethlehem, she plays the star of a daily cooking show in which she whips up traditional recipes using liberal amounts of olive oil from her father's own grove.
As good as the food looks and smells—sadly, there are no samples—it's Fadwa's running commentary about the history of Arabic cooking that mesmerizes the audience. Mentioning that baba ganoush translates roughly as "spoiled father," she tells how that the mix of roasted eggplant, olive oil, and various seasonings is said to have been created to satisfy an elderly parent who whined about having to eat plain mashed eggplant day after day.
It's a bit of a letdown when you realize that Fadwa's TV show is only in her head—an escape. And there's plenty to run away from. Her life is spent largely taking care of her own father, who is suffering from dementia. Meanwhile she's tasked with planning a wedding feast for her younger sister, who is set to move to New York promptly following the nuptials, and on top of it all, the love of Fadwa's life—her childhood sweetheart—returns to town for the first time in two years, only to reveal that he is in a relationship with her shallow cousin.
If this sounds like a run-of-the-mill family comedy-drama, it is. But Shana Gold's crisp direction, Andromache Chalfant's handsome set, and some subtle and moving performances save it from feeling too hackneyed. Besides Issaq, the standouts include Maha Chehlaoui as Fadwa's sweet-natured sister Dalal, Arian Moayed as Dalal's boisterous fiancé Emir, and Haaz Sleiman as Emir's striking older brother Youssif, who also happens to that love of Fadwa's life.
The setting in the West Bank would seem a promising one, but it turns out to be little more than a device to keep Dalal and Emir separated. (Wouldn't you know it—the Israelis impose a curfew just before the wedding, and Emir can't get back across the border from Jerusalem.) While they're stuck inside the house, Fadwa has plenty of time to reminisce with Youssif and have a Real Housewives of New Jersey-style skirmish with Hayat (Heather Raffo), Youssif's new girlfriend.
It's never clear why Issaq and Kader made Fadwa and her family Christians. Not only does the play fail to explore the unsteady relationship between Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs in the West Bank, it barely mentions Muslims at all. But then, it's hard to put the Arab-Israeli conflict on stage without being a bit by-the-numbers.
There's one scene that hints at what this play might have been. After dinner, Emir and Youssif use the leftovers to describe to Hayat what life in the West Bank has become. After creating a rough map of the region with hummus, tabbouleh, and other foods, Emir scatters salt everywhere—for the hundreds of Israeli checkpoints, he explains. It's a hilarious scene, and one that makes a sharp point. And that's one flavor that Food and Fadwa is largely lacking.
'Food and Fadwa' plays at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, through June 24. Tickets are $40 and are available at 212-279-4200 or at www.nytw.org.
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