Driving The Saudis
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 19, 2010
In her solo play Driving the Saudis, writer-performer Jayne Amelia Larson has quite an interesting story to tell. It's about a job she had, for seven weeks, not all that long ago, as a chauffeur—one of a fleet of chauffeurs—to a visiting contingent of Saudi Arabian royalty in Beverly Hills, California. As you might expect, Larson has lots of anecdotes to relate from this episode in her life, some titillating, some appalling. But what's best about Driving the Saudis are the lessons Larson draws from this experience, lessons with surprising resonance for all of us. This is a play ultimately about divisions of several kinds—based on religion, culture, class, and gender—and about what happens to our self-respect and self-realization when we allow the promise of reward to compromise our own beliefs about those divisions.
The show charts Larson's stint as a driver for a visiting Saudi Princess, more or less chronologically, from the job interview (at which the most significant qualification for the job seemed to be whether or not Larson is a Jew) through her initial encounters with the Princess and her massive entourage of family members, retainers, security personnel, hangers-on, and servants, up until the Princess's departure from California (bound for a ski trip in Switzerland).
Larson narrates the tale and often takes on roles of persons she met—the Princess herself, her snotty hairdresser (who won $40,000 in a midnight gambling excursion), her French Arab secretary (who sent her out on a variety of absurd errands), her spoiled daughter (who made Larson follow her down Rodeo Drive with the car radio blaring full blast while she danced on the sidewalk), and the daughter's Lebanese governess, an educated woman who teaches Larson a great deal about the Saudi royal family and about Muslim customs regarding women.
The relationship of women to Islam is certainly one of Larson's focuses here; she's generally shocked and disturbed by practices that boggle her 21st century American mind and also at the calm acceptance of them by so many of the Muslim women she got to know. Larson also talks at length about the Saud family's history and their special relationship to the American political establishment; in one memorable scene she explains how her own job—driving around Beverly Hills in a fuel-inefficient Humvee—enriched her employers: it is they, after all, who ultimately sell the gasoline that's being wasted.
For me, the real lesson of Driving the Saudis lies in its exposure of the customs and mores of the very wealthy. Larson tells us that people as rich as the Saudi Princess have no conception of what money means, and she proves it in anecdote after anecdote. The trouble is that the utterly blind eye that the Princess is able to turn to the humanity of servants (like Larson herself) who are at her beck and call 24/7 is based in the eternal power of the purse: we cannot simply condemn the Princess for buying 60 Hermes bags at $15,000 apiece; we have to also blame whoever it is who's willing to sell them to her.
Seeing Driving the Saudis is compelling and valuable because Larson shares not only an experience that's pertinent and unique, but also her own very insightful examination of that experience. She's a smart lady. Alas, at the performance attended, she didn't seem as well-prepared as I'd have hoped: she seemed to lose her place in the narrative more than once, and her interaction with a projected set of slides felt severely under-rehearsed (and this was not the first performance of the show). My sense was that Larson might be more comfortable sitting on stage with a stack of note cards and extemporizing about her time with the Saudis; in any case, she seems to need to continue to work with her director, Charlie Stratton, to iron out some bugs in the proceedings. I hope she does, because this is an important bit of living history that she has made for us, and it deserves to reach a wide audience in as effective a manner as possible.