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Spark and Sputter

by James Yeara on September 14, 2011

Tennis in Nablus
BY ISMAIL KHALIDI, DIRECTED BY LAURA MARGOLIS STAGEWORKS/HUDSON, THROUGH SEPT. 25

The 21 scenes in Ismail Khalidi’s Tennis in Nablus show off Stageworks/Hudson at its best and worst. A new play having its East Coast premiere, Tennis in Nablus centers on Palestine, spring 1939. In some scenes it serves as an engaging polemic on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in others as an intriguing pas de deux of a modern marriage, or a series of surreal conversations on the life, death, and history of freedom fighters, or a ripping good yarn about escape from a military prison that just begs to be played by Michael Caine in his prime. Those scenes, like Stageworks/Hudson’s Play by Play series of new one-acts, are some of the best and boldest theater in the area, acted with the focus, variety, and integrity that are Stageworks’ benchmark.

Unfortunately, a few of the 21 scenes play out like bad Monty Python imitations or SNL outtakes, bordering on calamitous. A few times memory and focus failed to the point of sputtering and stammering, until the Jeopardy-like, improvised delivery of the mangled line in the form of a question finally stopped the wide-eyed spluttering. And the scenes delivered by a supposedly oppressive British officer in a silly Ali Baba costume, or in Watusi warrior wear complete with blackface, or, more indulgently, as Hitler, display Stageworks at its worst, just as some of the one acts in Play by Play jump the track. But in Play by Play, the occasional misfires of vanity are easier to overlook. With Tennis in Nablus, the doofy scenes are part of the whole, and the effect is like a great dinner date with fabulous food, better wine, and even better conversation that ends incongruously with your date vomiting in your lap. No matter how excellent everything else is, what’s going to stick with you are mushy carrots on your crotch.

It’s a shame because scenic and lighting designer John Sowle’s smartly crafted set—a series of brick arches connected by burlap, a trap door for the important prison scenes, and a stage wagon for key interior scenes—keeps the shifting locales of the many scenes fluid, and the cast is largely excellent. Particularly noteworthy is Christopher Smith, who creates a distinct trio of characters: a heavy-handed British sentry, the friendly and erudite Zionist Samuel Hirsch, and Emiliano Zapata, who wanders in and out of dreams. Shivantha Wijesinha believably creates Rajib, who seems only on loan from the soon-to-be Indian National Army and thus evades the arrogance and ignorance of the British imperialist.

At its core, though, Tennis in Nablus is the story of Yusef Al Qudsi, a Palestinian rebel freed from two years’ exile to return to his equally passionate wife Anbara Qudsi, whose anti-Imperialist newspaper articles are even more dangerous than Yusef’s gun smuggling, and Yusef’s collaborating nephew and chief rival, Tariq Qudsi. And the trio at their core make a powerful team.

Nasser Faris (veteran of such films as Jarhead, House of Sand and Fog, and, strangely appropriate, Ocean’s Twelve) is excellent as Yusef, and Maria Silverman matches Faris’ intensity and humor as Anbara, while Fajer Al-Kaisi’s Tariq equals both Faris and Silverman in mettle and mirth.

With its multiple settings, quick scene changes, and wild leaps in mood and tone, Tennis in Nablus would make for a better film than play, but the scenes with the Qudsi family triangle are what ultimately form the spine of the piece and finally block out the disjointed attempts at chunky satire. Near play’s end, stuck in prison and repeatedly abused, Yusef states, “It’s a damned good joke, a witty piece of political satire as far as I’m concerned,” but then, torture will make a person say anything.