Food and Fadwa
nytheatre.com review by Cory Conley
June 5, 2012
If you go to see Food and Fadwa, the new play at New York Theater Workshop, here's a bit of friendly advice: eat first.
This goes double if you're a fan of hummus, baba ganoush, or any dish with a heavy dose of olive oil. All of them—staples of Middle Eastern cuisine—will be tossed, cooked and described by Fadwa, our heroine, throughout the play's two hours and twenty minutes, and there'll be lots of eating, too. Fadwa, see, is the host of her own imaginary cooking show, broadcast directly from her kitchen, and she's out to prove that no matter how bad things get, there's always time for a healthy, home-cooked meal.
When we meet her, she's making such a meal for her (non-imaginary) sister Dalal's upcoming wedding, which will bring the Faranesh family together in their original home, before Dalal and her fiancé Emir head off to New York to start married life. Needless to say, the stress of such an event means tensions are likely to run high. And if Food and Fadwa took place somewhere in America—the Midwest, say—you'd know early on that you should prepare for yet another steamy, schematic comedy about the travails of yet another family, as conventional (and American) as theater gets.
But this isn't the Midwest. It's the Middle East, specifically the volatile and explosive region known as the West Bank. And that means the Faranesh clan lives with checkpoints, curfews, and the constant suspicion of armed occupiers. Politics can't help but intrude on the preparations, and when it does, it's often a matter of life and death.
Food and Fadwa, written by Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kader, is the first production from Noor Theater, the new company-in-residence at NYTW, whose mission is "supporting, developing, and presenting the work of theater artists of Middle Eastern descent." This arrangement grew out of the fracas surrounding NYTW's cancellation of My Name is Rachel Corrie in 2006, which raised the ire of partisans on both sides of the Middle Eastern conflict. Through collaboration with Noor, the Workshop has attempted to broaden the boundaries of the debate by adding the perspective of Palestinian Arabs who grapple with it everyday.
And for the most part, it's a very good thing they did. The voices on display here are sorely needed, and NYTW's decision to lend them a major New York stage is a real step towards a more inclusive discussion. Food and Fadwa contains plenty of illuminating interludes about life under occupation—from the necessity of a permit just to work in Jerusalem, to the purported indignity of the Israeli West Bank barrier (variously called a "mere fence," a "virtual gate," and a "god-forsaken monstrosity.")
As a domestic drama, though, Food and Fadwa often feels disappointingly tepid, creaky in its storytelling and strangely lacking in palpable tension. It checks all the boxes of its genre: there's a love triangle, a father suffering from Alzheimer's, and a comic aunt-next-door whose prime concern is the contestant lineup on "Arab Idol." There's also an aura of generational legacy that seems to reach for the mythic. But it's all fraught with a load of emotional weight the script can't really bear. Though the characters have been given any number of conflicts, they add up to something less than the sum of their parts because it's clear from the start that this tight-knit family will survive no matter what. The Faranesh household is full of reasoned arguments between loving people, all with the best of intentions; that's the sign of a functional family, but it's not the stuff of blood-quickening drama.
There is much artistry to admire here, from Andromache Chalfant's cozy set to Japhy Weideman's elegant lighting. The cast, directed by Shana Gold, is mostly excellent: Issaq herself, in the title role, shifts credibly between familial devotion and personal devastation, while Arian Moayed (a well-deserved Tony nominee last year for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo) thrives as the prankish Emir. Given the talent here, and the importance of the subject, we should all hope that the creators of Food and Fadwa continue to probe, deeper and deeper, into the maze of tensions in the Middle East. There's an awful lot to chew on.