Port Authority Throw Down
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 26, 2006
Mike Batistick's new play Port Authority Throw Down is about Pervez, a young Muslim from Pakistan who emigrated to the United States two years ago with his brother, Nawaz, after Karachi became too dangerous a place for them to live. Though both are college-educated as engineers, Pervez is a cab driver and Nawaz earns his living hawking the Daily News in front of Manhattan's Port Authority bus terminal. Or rather, he earned his living that way; for as the play begins, Nawaz has disappeared. Pervez says his brother was taken from their Jersey City apartment by government officials, and now he has no idea where Nawaz is or why he has been (as Pervez imagines) arrested.
Some of Port Authority Throw Down follows Pervez as he tries to track Nawaz down, but—though obviously timely—it's not the most persuasive or interesting part of this play. Batistick instead focuses on Pervez's relationships with two Americans, both of whom are the closest things to friends this loner has. One of them is Nate, a homeless African American man from Philadelphia with a serious drinking problem who "lives" on the street by the pay phone near Nawaz's newspaper stand. The other is a young woman from Akron, Ohio named Barb who has come to New York to work in a Christian mission, trying to help Manhattanites save their souls and find Jesus. Barb meets Pervez in his cab and overcomes a good deal of apprehension when she accepts his invitation for a cup of coffee. They help each other navigate the alien territory of New York City, and for a while it seems like the play's big question will be whether Barb can overcome engrained prejudice and allow herself to act on her obvious romantic feelings for Pervez.
It's all commendable in terms of intention: Batistick and his collaborators want to remind us that race does matter (and not just in the obvious way: Pervez informs Nate at one point that he was warned by Pakistanis that blacks in America are all thieves and rapists) and that bigotry is deep and difficult to overcome, whether of the personal or the institutionalized variety. The trouble with Port Authority Thrown Down is that it offers very little that's new or compelling to this discussion. In the first place, it's pretty hard to swallow: would a sheltered Midwestern woman agree to have coffee with a foreign cab driver she's never met, let alone spend time in his cab on a dark Manhattan street? I don't think so; and neither did I really buy that Pervez could be so naive about his own brother, who he knows had been distributing (possibly) incendiary leaflets advocating Islamic revolution. Sure, it's criminal that Nawaz could be deported for exercising free speech, but surely both of these well-educated brothers would have seen that consequence coming in the America of 2003 (when the play takes place).
Second, and more damningly I think, is the fact that Batistick has elected to trade exclusively in stereotypes in his play. Having Pervez be a cab driver illustrates the difficulty that immigrants from the Mideast and South Asia have in finding adequate employment in the US, but notwithstanding that, wouldn't it be a relief to see a play instead about a Pakistani engineer? (Or student, or actor, or salesman; you name it.) The dynamics of the plot wouldn't need to change one iota, and a deeply engrained negative stereotype would have been subverted. The same may be said, by the way, for Nate and Barb: do we really need to see another homeless black wino or repressed Midwestern fundamentalist Christian portrayed anywhere in the media these days?
That said, the performances are committed and well-executed. Debargo Sanyal, a terrific young actor who I would love to see NOT play a New York taxi driver (this is his second cabbie this season), offers a smart and sensitive portrayal of Pervez, and takes full advantage of the occasional opportunities for comedy (as when Pervez tries to learn unaccented English from Barb). Edwin Lee Gibson and Annie McNamara do fine work as Nate and Barb, respectively, making us want to know more about these characters than the playwright ultimately discloses. Only Aladdin Ullah, as Nawaz, fails to register as three-dimensional, but that's probably the fault of his severely underwritten role.
Connie Grappo's direction is serviceably brisk and businesslike. She's worked with video designer Annette Verga-Lagier to frame the play with near-continuous footage of bustling NYC streets; the screen cuts the ultra-deep 45 Below stage by about two-thirds, rendering the action effectively intimate and in-our-face. Sandra Goldmark's set, which includes a Daily News hand truck that's actually credited in the program, aims for reality but doesn't quite mesh with the video backdrop; it was unclear to me for a long while whether the characters were supposed to be indoors or outdoors.
All in all, Port Authority Throw Down has a fair amount of entertainment value, but it disappoints as cogent dramatic commentary on our current fearful, mistrustful cultural climate.