A review of Seattle author Yussef El Guindi's illuminating new romantic comedy, which charts the challenges and rewards of a love affair between an Egyptian immigrant cabbie and a rough-edged American waitress.

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Theater Review |

The angry debates over illegal U.S. immigration, and fanned fears of Middle Eastern terrorists dwelling among us, are nowhere to be found in “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World.”

Seattle playwright Yussef El Guindi’s insightful, openhearted new comedy lives in the America where “pilgrims” of goodwill, from across the globe, come seeking economic betterment, but also a kind of individual liberation rarely available elsewhere.

Should one plunge into that new freedom fully? Or keep one foot in the familiar, sheltering culture of one’s homeland?

That’s been a dilemma of American immigrants since pilgrims stepped off the Mayflower. And the modern equivalent is explored with humor, warmth and all-around compassion in this winning tale, developed for the stage by the Icicle Creek Theatre Festival in concert with ACT Theatre.

In Anita Montgomery’sentertaining and well-acted staging on Jennifer Zeyl’s pop-up set, the quietly compelling Shanga Parker is Musa, a soft-spoken new Egyptian immigrant, still getting acclimated to New York City.

Musa is scratching out a living as a cabdriver, when he impulsively invites Sheri (excellent Carol Roscoe), a vivacious, rough-edged waitress at a diner he frequents, into his shabby walk-up digs.

Neither knows what they’re getting into, nor exactly what they want from the encounter. And in a long scene that combines crackling sexual attraction with cross-cultural awkwardness, they thrash through misunderstandings and fears before ending up in bed.

So far we’re in “Frankie and Johnny at the Claire de Lune” territory — you know: two lonely, working-class urbanites lowering their defenses to let in love.

But El Guindi has other interesting things on his mind here, beyond the morning after. He introduces a philosophical apparition (or is it a ghost?) of Abdallah (Anthony Leroy Fuller), Musa’s roommate who is away on a hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) to give thanks for his own success in America.

For other perspectives, there are Musa’s friend Tayyib (Sylvester Foday Kamara), a more (and less) settled immigrant from Somalia and Gamila (Kimberley Sustad), an Egyptian American more in tune with traditional Muslim culture than Musa, though born and raised in the U.S.

From these characters (and a few adroit plot twists) other challenges of multiculturalism arise. Tayyib questions Musa’s relationship with Sheri on several counts, asserting, “You can’t be a foreigner twice” — that is, it’s rough enough out in the world. But coming home to a partner of a different background?

In his lyrical soliloquies, Abdallah celebrates the diversity, human richness and opportunities America affords.

And Gamila? There’s more to her and more conflict within her, than her chaste demeanor and hijab (traditional headscarf worn by devout Muslim women) may suggest.

Surface impressions of “different” Americans are often not the whole story, clearly. Even the often foul-mouthed, crass Sheri, asserts, “I’m more of a lady than I first appear to be.” (Point taken, though her character could use some more genteel moments to support that.)

Along with some refining of Sheri, El Guindi might reconsider a few patches that verge on the preachy. But these are tweaks.

The good news: “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World” is a comic charmer and a humane reminder that most of us are pilgrims of one kind or another in this big, complicated, rewarding land we share.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com