BY MARI S. GOLD
Under a hanging scimitar, a wall projection reads 1981. This sets the stage for Welcome to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, at 59E59 Theaters through October 25th.
As a call to prayer issues, a handsome, bearded Arabic man in a white thobe and red-and-white checked keffyieh enters. He claps. The prayer stops and contemporary music begins while he breaks into a “penguin dance,” legs akimbo. He’s grinning, having a wonderful time and the audience loves him.
Enter American ex-pats Tina Murphy-Brown and her husband, Hank, drawn to Saudi Arabia by financial rewards promised by Aramco. Tina, who invokes God a lot, isn’t sure how she’ll cope with being covered from head to toe and not eating pork but, like her husband, wants to get out of the oil hell hole of Pasadena, Texas.
Welcome to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a “dark musical comedy” about barriers raised by gender and culture, developed by Monk Parrots, a NYC-based experimental theater company.
Most of the music is highly forgettable and, in many cases unintelligible, odd as the theater is very small and the actors use mics. The exception is Jessica Dean, who does a fine job as Tina, singing about her love of air conditioning and citing scripture. Joey LePage may have been cast as Hank for his buff physique; he lacks affect, even in the slightly disgusting episode when brown motor oil is poured over his briefs-clad body. Randy, the Brown’s stillborn son, is played by the talented John Gasper, wearing a baggy union suit and white facial makeup with tufts of hair sprouting from his otherwise bald head. His role is confusing, including when he strangles himself, but so was much of the production that reminded me of TV’s long-gone Laugh-In, laden with talented people reveling in unrelated jokes, skits and musical numbers.
Act Two, (another too-fast wall projection sets it in 1991), has a far grimmer tone as relationships fray and the Gulf War begins. I thought the drunken neighbor and his sexy wife had returned to the U.S but there they are, she in bikini bottom and a half-burqua; later–for a reason I couldn’t grasp– bound and gagged by her husband in a Spiderman costume. Abdullah’s daughter, Zillah, (Ruthy Froch), wears a burqua while she tells jokes and sings until at the very end she abruptly appears in a tight sequined dress and belts “I am dark energy; I do not dilute even as my universe expands.” Huh?
The set is made of plastic cutouts with flopping hands that seemed more Halloween than Saudi. There are a few effective numbers, mostly those performed by The Descendants of Abraham, a trio played by whichever company members are not already onstage, in superb camel costumes by designer Alison Heryer.
For more information on Welcome to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, please visit www.59e59.org.