Out on a Limb in Damascus

damascusA Scots man, trying to sell a series of multicultural textbooks that teach English to foreigners, lands in contemporary Damascus, Syria. He is quite unsophisticated, sleep-deprived after the long flight there, and eager to return to his home. From this simple premise of “rube out of his depths,” David Grieg’s Damascus opens up a whole world of cultural and erotic possibilities during Paul’s three-day visit and stay at a three-star hotel, under the tutelage of its friendly young desk clerk Zakaria and the lovely school administrator Muna.

A Traverse Theatre Production from Scotland, Damascus is part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, running in Manhattan April 23 to June 29 in this, its fifth year. It provides an excellent opportunity to see new British plays that are not large or splashy enough for Broadway, but that have won awards and accolades in various British theatres. This particular play quite subtly captures the potential complexity of any sort of negotiation when a western European tries to navigate the linguistic and cultural differences of a Middle Eastern culture.

Paul (played with a marvelous goofy shyness and confusion by Ewen Bremner [Spud in Trainspotting]) is only filling in for his boss on this trip and is actually the author of the particular textbook he is peddling—“Middleton Road, the UK Now”--with the awkwardness of a writer as opposed to the glibness of a trained salesman. The very attractive Muna (played with charm and authority by Nathalie Armin) criticizes the textbook from the point of view of Syrian culture. “This is not acceptable,” she says a number of times. Paul quickly becomes apologetic over various cultural gaffes and agrees to change the text.

But there are many negotiations going on at once here: Zakaraia, the young desk clerk, wants Paul to help him meet western women for sex, and--what a surprise--he is also writing a film script of his life that he’d like Paul to pitch in Hollywood. [It makes one wonder if there is anywhere in the world where people are not writing film scripts.] Muna’s superior, the “dean” Wasim, also shows up, a handsome, somewhat older man who had been her lover in Moscow during her student days. Once he went to prison for six months for his political views. Now he is part of the establishment. He is the one who will help get the text accepted by the education minister, if he is so inclined. Wasim is clearly more interested in Muna than in pitching an English textbook.

Finally, there is Elena, the Ukrainian Marxist piano player in the hotel lobby, who jazzes up classics from various periods to set the mood for the hotel guests. She is a kind of narrator/Greek chorus figure, not involved in the action, but commenting on the mood of the place at the various hours of the day. She adds a sad, jaded note to the somewhat comic interactions. She’s beautiful in her long gown, but rather cynical about the world. She’s seen it all.

What makes this play both amusing and serious is the meticulous way in which Grieg lays before us this banal little slice of society--educators and their dreams--so that we understand on a microcosmic level the difficulties of communication between cultures. This subject is surely significant at a time when “global” issues dominate our discourse, often with no sense of exactly what “global” means. The United States was sorely unprepared for many of the differences in culture and behavior it encountered in post-invasion Iraq. Such misunderstandings can prove very disorienting for all parties.

In the play, Paul, a seemingly a happily married man who wants to get home for Valentine’s Day, gets slightly drunk, resists the invitations of Zakaria to go seek western women--“very free girls”-- they can both take to bed, but then later, when out on the town, gets even drunker, and looks for a prostitute in a nightclub. Muna seems to desire to break free of the cultural restrictions on female behavior, but sends mixed signals to both Paul and Wasim. And Wasim longs to return to the days when he and his friends engaged in idealistic conversations about poetry and he didn’t have to attend boring conferences on educational policy.

A certain nostalgia for a simpler past is contrasted with the images shown on the large lobby television, Al-Jazeera network coverage of daily bombings in the Middle East, families wandering in war zones, soldiers with guns, etc. Added to Paul’s tension is the fact that fighting in Beirut is escalating during his visit, and his flight out has Beirut connections. Grieg uses these exterior and obviously dangerous events to frame his little story, effectively creating the world we live in now, where westerners fear terrorist bombings both abroad and on their home turf.

Damascus proves provocative and pertinent, if a little long. While the story is a small one, the implications are large, particularly the need to learn to be more sensitive to the expectations of non-western cultures, responding to international problems with approaches more subtle than warfare and economic domination. Damascus, with its delightful characters and entertaining production, provides a window on issues worth contemplating. - Victoria Sullivan

Damascus is playing through June 1 at 59E59 Theatre, 59th St. between Park Ave. and Madison Ave.

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

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