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THEATER REVIEW Language Rooms
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2019-04-24

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Playwright: Yussef El Guindi

At: Broken Nose Theatre at The Den, 1331 N. Milwaukee. Tickets: BrokenNoseTheatre.com; pay-what-you-can ( all performances ). Runs through: May 18

Numerous plays have examined issues of assimilation from the perspective of immigrants to the United States' shores, often focusing on generational conflict between the parents who came here and their much-more-assimilated children who grew up here. I'm the son/grandson of just such a history.

In recent years, plays by authors of Asian or Middle Eastern heritage have taken center stage from older works about European immigrants and even works about Latinx immigrants. Broadly speaking, award-winning Egyptian-American author Yussef El Guindi is no different, although he brings exceptional wit, humor and well-shaped dialogue to his plays. In Language Rooms, however, El Guindi constructs a more complex work, a set of nesting boxes of sorts.

Ahmed ( Salar Ardebeli ) and Nasser ( Bassam Abdelfattah ) are the only Arabic-speaking interrogators for an unnamed American security agency, housed in a fortress-like facility. Their boss, Kevin ( Bradford Stevens ), makes it apparent that the agency spends more time second-guessing its employees than it does outing terrorists. In this absurd, partly comic universe—Harold Pinter's The Dumb Waiter comes to mind—Ahmed is vaguely accused of being an agency spy spying on other agency spies because he didn't watch the Superbowl with them.

However, this is window trimming for the real crunch that takes place when Ahmed interrogates his own father, who owns a neighborhood grocery store. The play's weak spot is that we know when we first meet Samir ( Bilal Dardai ) that Ahmed is his son and they soon will be in conflict. Of course, one wonders why Ahmed accepts such an assignment, or why Kevin makes such an assignment, but the play doesn't deal with that.

Once the interrogation begins, Language Rooms peels off layer after layer to get at the father/son heart of things, which includes—among other well-worn tropes—how Samir's Old World ways embarrassed Ahmed, and how Samir insisted Ahmed speak only English. The interrogation is Ahmed's undoing, which appears to have been the agency's goal, but the emotional and psychological twists-and-turns come so quickly that I cannot discern El Guindi's particular point or points without seeing it again. There's lengthy discussion about loyalty—to family, heritage, country and/or career—much of which is utterly absurd but some of which is utterly serious. My sympathies at the end are with Ahmed and Samir, but am I supposed to make a choice between them?

Under director Kaiser Zaki Ahmed, the four actors ( who have all impressed me before ) are quite fearless and convincing, especially Ardebeli and Dardai whose roles expose them—literally—to the naked glare of interrogation. The yellow-white cinderblock bunker scenic design by Sotirios Livaditis provides an appropriately threatening environment. Will Quam's sound design adds effective punctuation. Language Rooms is nearly 10 years old, but is as current ( regrettably ) as the country is today.


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