Review: “Threesome” at 59E59 Theaters

David Roberts

“After great pain a formal feeling comes--/The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;/ This is the hour of lead/Remembered if outlived,/As freezing persons recollect the snow--/First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.” (Emily Dickinson, 372)

On a visit to Cairo, Egyptian-American Leila (played with a passionate intensity by Alia Attallah) suffered great pain on two occasions. The assault in a crowd and the additional assault at the police station left her first chilled, then in a stupor, unable to let go what had happened to her. Her decision to write a book about her experience initiated a sequence of events that would change her life forever. Alia’s journey to “letting go” is the gritty mix that makes up “Threesome,” currently running at 59E59 Theaters as part of their 5A Season.

After returning home to the United States with her photographer boyfriend Rashid (played with the right mix of reserve and bravado by Karan Oberoi), Alia meets Doug (played with a coy and deceptive persona by Quinn Franzen) at a publisher’s gathering and decides to invite him for a threesome with her and Rashid. The motivation for the invitation is complex and indicative of the equally complex nature of playwright Yussef El Guindi’s dense rich script. Doug’s entry into the bedroom from the bathroom, unwashed from a bout of diarrhea and failing to flush the toilet signals this threesome is not destined for success. There is also rich symbolism in Doug’s entry completely naked while Alia and Rashid have difficulty baring all.

Alia had hoped the threesome would address some of the emotional distance she was experiencing with Rashid after their return from Cairo. Instead, the experience exacerbates the tension between the couple, stirring up deep-seated gender/sex role stereotypes, unresolved sexist attitudes, fractured self-images, and endemic racism. In the midst of the failed groping (physical and emotional), Alia argues, “And I made the point that it always seems the woman had the wrong end of the contract. The obligations always seemed to be on her. Whereas the freedoms belonged to the guy.”

Doug understands he has become more catalyst than sex toy: “I was not anticipating this. It’s like a seminar. Without and clothes on. But that’s cool, I’m easy.” Doug is easy with the dynamic because he comes to the threesome with a hidden agenda and a secret that will explode in Act II. That secret is embedded in his comment to Alia, “I did it once with an Arab before. When I was an embedded photographer.”

Act I ends with the revelation that Doug read Alia’s book and will be doing the book design – not Rashid who assumed Alia had put his name in for the job. This news opens a Pandora’s Box of secrecy, revenge, jealousy, and a matrix of motivations that will keep the plot moving forward with lightning speed. During Act II, the important themes of sexism, racism, and sexual violence are developed in the conversations between Alia and Rashid and Alia and Doug. This is a powerful Act and each character is provoked to expose his or her motivations and deeply held prejudices. 

Under Chris Coleman’s exacting direction, this ensemble cast brilliantly showcases Mr. Guindi’s dense text, exposing its layers and its challenging deep questions about the relationship between men and women, the exploitation of women, how sexual violence affects women, and how issues of race and culture interact in the development of significant human relationships.

The ability of each character to be transparent about her or his true feelings, motivations, and agendas has a direct correlation to the character’s ability to “bare all.” This is a sophisticated convention not an exercise in gratuitous nudity. In the final scene, Alia is able to “let go” of those things that have shackled her and imprisoned her in cultural and sexual stereotypes and the worst kind of contemporary colonialism.

THREESOME

The design team includes David McCrum, Seth Chandler and Erinn McGrew (scenic design); Alison Heryer (costume designer); Peter Maradudin (lighting designer); and Casi Pacilio (sound designer). The Production Stage Manager is Emily N. Wells. Production photos by Hunter Canning.

“Threesome” runs for a limited engagement at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street) through Sunday, August 23. The performance schedule is Tuesday – Thursday at 7 PM; Friday at 8 PM; Saturday at 2 PM & 8 PM; Sunday at 3 PM. There are added 7 PM performances on Sunday August 2, 9, and 16. Single tickets are $70 ($49 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org. The running time is 2 hours.

WITH: Alia Attallah, Quinn Franzen, and Karan Oberoi.

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