Yasmina’s Necklace currently running at Mustard Seed Theatre walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy. Does it reconcile those two poles, or does it blur that line to the point of being emotionally jarring? Unfortunately, I think it does at least push at the boundaries of what is and is not appropriate. Fortunately, I enjoyed watching it anyway.


The play is old-fashioned ala Neil Simon, but with more timely subject matter. Simon’s comedies are structured around difficult events in a changing society and he finds the humor in them, often through nostalgia. Rohina Malik writes in the same style, only her work looks both backward and forward. Yasmina’s Necklace is, in many ways, a rom-com in which a couple become acquainted in an unusual way. Abdul Samee (Adam Flores) is a thirtysomething Muslim man, half Puerto Rican (his mother, Sara [Maritza Motta Gonzalez], is a Roman Catholic who converted to Islam in college) and his father, Ali (Chuck Winning) is Iraqi by birth. They have lived in Chicago for many years, and their son, now calling himself “Sam,” “for business reasons,” was born in the U.S. He is recently divorced from an American Christian, and his parents want to arrange another marriage quickly, this time with a Muslim girl.

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Sam is considered damaged goods, however, due to the divorce. To placate his parents about his name change (they hate it) and his divorce (they hate that too), he agrees to meet Yasmina (Parvuna Sulaiman), another “undesirable” in the romance market because of her age (34) and the fact that she is “F.O.B.,” (fresh off the boat), she and her father being refugees. They escaped Iraq through a perilous journey through Syria and Turkey.


Yasmina lost her mother in the war and plans never to marry. She is arguing with her father, Musa (Amro Salama), about the meeting with Sam and his parents when the three arrive at the refugees’ shabby home, decorated mainly by Yasmina’s paintings. She has what is generally considered an unhealthy obsession with death, and it is reflected in her art, which Sam’s mother pronounces “depressing.”


The group is joined by Imam Rafi (Jaime Zayas) who will act as the “marriage broker.” He and the elders quickly leave the room to Sam and Yasmina and awkwardness ensues. But no matter what is going on, Yasmina has an aura of strength and self-possession about her. She is courageous enough to wear a necklace in the shape of Iraq with the country’s name spelled out on it, despite the scorn of customers at the store where she is a cashier. This is the “necklace,” of the title, and its story unfolds throughout the play until we finally learn its full import. Sam, despite his reservations, is interested.


In conversation, Yasmina mentions she’s interested in starting up a non-profit organization to help refugees, women in particular, and Sam seizes on this as his way to get to know her better. He helps her get going on the project, recommends a lawyer, volunteers to serve on the board of directors—in short, he comes into her life and she begins to return his interest, but there are many rivers to cross before we are finished with these two. And it is in this journey that the water sometimes seems too deep.


There are a lot of funny lines in these first scenes, and these characters would be right at home in a sitcom like, well, “Fresh Off the Boat.” But as the story unfolds, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the comedy. Act I was fine and I liked it a lot. Act II was when the cognitive dissonance began as Yasmina trusts Sam with more and more of her story, but not, we will learn, all of it. There are no big surprises here. We are usually a couple of steps ahead of the storyline; still, I simply found it hard to reconcile Sam’s continuing to behave as if this is all fun and games as she speaks of the darkest of human experiences. By the end, I felt genuinely uncomfortable, and probably not for the reasons I should have.

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A character called Amir (Ethan Joel Isaac) plays a doctor and childhood best friend of Yasmina’s who appears in flashbacks to let us know what a toll the ongoing war is taking on the Iraqi people and the entire Middle East. His is not a comic part. He has great dignity and character, and if you ask me, he and Yasmina would be a better couple than she and Sam because Amir shares her depth and sense of purpose. His is medicine and hers is art, and to them, their missions are of equal importance. Sam seems to be a lightweight in comparison.


The set is neatly divided by a big platform upstage, hand-painted by props designer Meg Brinkley and her crew to resemble a mosaic, with big Islamic-inspired designs on the flats behind. Pointed arches as one finds in a Mosque line the top of the playing area, and are beautifully enhanced by Michael Sullivan’s lighting design. Zoe Sullivan contributes the sound, which includes much more than music, and Jane Sullivan has dressed the characters appropriately. My one nit to pick about the set is that the two living areas, both divided and unified by the large platform, looks appropriately shabby on the refugee side, but very little different on the comparatively well-to-do assimilated family’s space.


The standout here is Sulaiman. In fact, she’s so good, she may be part of the problem with balance. I felt for her plight deeply, and all the joking began to seem as if it were in poor taste. But the acting is good all around; the direction by Deanna Jent is static here and there, but otherwise, more than competent. And to end where I began, overall, I had a good time spending a couple of hours in Yasmina’s company.


Yasmina’s Necklace runs through Feb. 11, 2017, at Mustard Seed Theatre on the campus of Fontbonne University. For more information, visit their website at www.mustardseedtheatre.com or call 314-719-8060.

 

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