Two men stand in an ugly, florescent-lit room. It’s an ominous place: cracked concrete floor, ripped and chipped acoustic tiles on the wall, three mysterious objects (one table-shaped, one chair-shaped, one a large cube) covered in black shrouds.
The men don’t brighten the atmosphere. Ahmed (George Sayah) is harried, rumpled and grumpy. Nasser (Hisam Goueli) looks more put together (tighter haircut, closer shave, holding a clipboard), but seems more officious, less humane. We meet this charmless pair mid-conversation. Ahmed wants to know something (“I’m sorry, what? Why? Just tell me.”) while Nasser is circumspect, worried about the surveillance cameras.
The room contains a tense contradiction: visibly neglected, but invisibly overexposed. It’s a fitting first moment for Yussef El Guindi‘s harrowing “Language Rooms,” which takes place in a U.S.-run interrogation center at an undisclosed location — and is being staged by Pony World Theatre in the old U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service building on the edge of the Chinatown International District, where thousands of detainees have arrived, left and sometimes languished for months. It’s also where El Guindi became a U.S. citizen, in 1996. (In an even more poignant twist, director Brendan Healy settled on the space before learning that it was the precise room where El Guindi took his “oath of allegiance.”)
Born in Cairo; educated in London, Paris and Carnegie Mellon University; and based in Seattle, El Guindi’s plays specialize in cultural and geographical displacement, from alienated couples to the promises and frustrations of immigration, and the ways people maneuver through foreignness and belonging. El Guindi’s themes are subtle and complex, but take sharp life in his vivid characters. His 2015 play “Threesome” (which had a world premiere at ACT Theatre before going to New York for an Off Broadway run) navigated the thorny comedy of sexual and religious politics between a married couple who fled to the States after the Egyptian uprising of 2011. In the first scene, they try (and botch) a threesome with a harebrained, white, male photographer. It starts funny, but ends searingly.
“Language Rooms” begins treacherously and gets scarier as Ahmed, a U.S. interrogator, realizes his loyalties are being questioned — over little things, his colleague Nasser says in a failed attempt to sound encouraging. Ahmed doesn’t socialize enough. He didn’t come to the Super Bowl party. He doesn’t like to shower with the other guys. “I don’t know what to do when George wants to hold a conversation without any clothes on,” Ahmed protests. Nasser gestures around the room: “You have conversations with naked people all the time!”
“Oh God,” Ahmed says, blanching. “I’m getting that nauseous feeling again. You work your ass off to fit in and all you get is this in return.” He doesn’t know, but suspects, there’s more “this” coming his way. He’s right.
“Language Rooms” has sprinkles of comedy, but it’s all of the grim variety. Nasser tells Ahmed he needs to be a better team player while casually organizing the tools of their trade on a rolling cart: a hammer, a screwdriver, rope, a dildo. In another scene, Ahmed and his supervisor Kevin (Lowell Deo) try on red clown noses they’ve been sent by headquarters as “part of our newer, gentler approach of facilitating information.”
The cast, along with designers Amber Lynne Parker (lighting) and Sann Hall (set), have created a consistently unsettling atmosphere — but light, hopeful relief comes in the shape of Samir (Abhijeet Rane) who, in a series of monologues, recalls his family’s move from Egypt to the U.S. with all its eagerness, joy and trepidation. We’ll meet him again in the interrogation room.
While Sayah plays Ahmed as steadily swirling down a Kafka-inflected anxiety drain, Rane’s Samir brings a convincing, fuller spectrum of humanity. “The children were ecstatic, of course,” he beams in a monologue about breaking the news that they’d won the visa lottery. “My 5-year-old thought this was a big escape from the school he hated so much and my daughter who loved pop music thought she could now be cool in the land where everything cool comes from!” Actually arriving in the States, of course, complicates what seemed simple from far way.
Ahmed and Samir are two studies in ambivalence about the American dream — the real drama begins when they finally meet at the top of act two, in the interrogation center. Samir is in chains, but still relatively merry, given the circumstances. His mood, as you might imagine, is going to change.
“Language Rooms” is a tough play about tough subjects: terrorism, detention, manipulation and how not fitting in at work can curdle into something more serious than mere irritation. But El Guindi’s rewarding text, plus Healy’s direction (particularly in the tense second act, dominated by Ahmed and Samir) coax us into the kaleidoscope of its characters’ internal lives.
As Samir muses in one reflective moment: “Immigration, it is not for sissies … The price for a better life, you see, it is always a little higher than you think it will be.”
“Language Rooms” by Yussef El Guindi. Through May 4; Pony World Theatre at the Slate Theater, 815 Seattle Blvd. S., Seattle; $15-$20, pay what you can April 22; 800-838-3006, ponyworld.com