ST. PETERSBURG — We haven't had a lot of plays about the Patriot Act, which loosened restrictions on investigating terrorism. Now there is at least one.
American Stage Theatre Company selected Strait of Gibraltar, about a young couple torn apart by an investigation, as the first play in its 21st Century Voices program. Andrea Lepcio's fast-paced script asks what happens when a nation no longer trusts its own people.
We see the conflict through the disrupted lives of Miriam Rosenberg, a New York banker, and Sameer Fakhoury, a Moroccan immigrant she meets at a party. She's Jewish, he's Muslim. Her idea of adventure is getting a little wild after a few too many drinks and having overnight encounters like this one. He brings a welcome chaos into her life, challenges her orthodoxy, infusing it with descriptions of mountains and cedar trees, even the smells of his father's honey farm. On three screens above the action, a view of earth from the International Space Station precedes the first dialogue, a hint about artificial divisions created by people on the planet.
This show directed by Jim Sorensen is the play's second production ever, selected out of more than 300 entries to the theater's 21st Century Voices: New Play Festival. A certain freshness permeates it. The main characters hook up at the party and get to know each other in the morning. Jordan Mann delivers a basically wholesome Miriam, who has a promising manuscript she can't bring herself to submit and who is quietly disillusioned by material success. Joe Joseph complements her credibly as Sameer in a budding romance that doubles as a cross-cultural exploration.
The show moves briskly along, something for which we can be grateful. That it does so at the expense of character development is another matter. We don't find out much about Sameer as a person. Perhaps that is by design, his bona fides being the mystery here. They clash over the Israeli-Palestininian conflict and she wonders if she is being used. Both of those issues could reduce to country and culture, not who they are as individuals.
The story examines rare terrain for a romance, such as international banking, the virtues of old-fashioned record keeping and the ways in which sweeping countermeasures can blot out subtlety and personality, all of those things that create individuality and tell stories. By the second act, a climate of suspicion has uprooted both lives as authorities investigate whether Sameer is a terrorist and Miriam is abetting him.
Initial scenes of harsh interrogation are heavy-handed and hard to believe, even if some of the scenes depicted really do reflect the worst treatment of detainees. A busy supporting cast plays two to four roles each, with Chris Jackson amiably playing the civil attorney friend who endeavors to free the couple. Angela Bond turns in a solid performance as Selma, Miriam's mother, who assumes Sameer is guilty, even if the character itself is a thinly-drawn xenophobe.
I won't give away any more except to say that good motives meet with a reward. But it will all take time and our fear of infiltration creates its share of collateral damage. These are important issues and the story is worth telling. It would be nice if learning about the people themselves and the things that happen to them didn't feel like such a tradeoff.
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