By Manning Harris
Synchronicity Theatre is presenting a world premiere play by Andrea Lepcio called “Strait of Gibraltar,” directed by Rachel May, running through April 23.
In PR for the show, it is called “a sexy romance turned terrorism thriller.” That’s not inaccurate, but because of the important, topical, complex themes involved, it strives to be much more; Ms. Lepcio bravely bites off more than she (or the audience) can possibly chew in a two-hour show (including intermission).
The bare facts: Miriam (Maggie Birgel), maybe 30, is a successful New York banker whose job is making rich people richer. She lives in a cool West Village apartment, the price of which, if you have to ask, you couldn’t afford. She meets Sameer (Benjamin Dewitt Sims), an attractive, undocumented young man from Morocco at a party and they hit it off instantly. Sameer works in a deli in Jackson Heights, Queens, where he shares a place with two roommates. Neither we nor Miriam ever see his apartment.
The playwright notes that New York City is a place “where you can know someone well and still have never been to his or her residence.” She’s right. Of course, New Yorkers cherish their privacy and independence, but that’s another story.
Oh yes, Sameer, of course, is Muslim, and Miriam is Jewish. The difference in heritage does not affect their lovemaking, which is instantly hot and heavy and takes place in Miriam’s apartment.
Kathleen Wattis plays Miriam’s mother, and Suehyla El-Attar and Brian Ashton Smith play important multiple parts. These three actors are experienced and excellent.
The first act is satisfyingly carnal, if a bit rambling. Act II is almost a different play.
You see, Sameer has asked Miriam if she will put some of his money into her bank account, and she agrees. But there is a confrontation at the airport with the police at the end of Act I which jolts us into another world. Could Sameer be a terrorist? Could Miriam be a collaborator?
All of us in the United States are aware of a new Executive Order concerning immigrants and refugees; director May and company couldn’t have known this would happen when they chose this play. And we are also aware of bomb threats directed toward Jewish schools. Ms. May says in notes that our assumptions and fears of “the other” cause us “to question the freedoms that we allow to be stripped from us in the name of fear.” Her direction, incidentally, is seamless.
As you can see, “Strait of Gibraltar” throws us in deep water concerning individual rights and how measures attempted to stop terrorism can, before you know it, cause us to practice the very measures we say we’re against.
Take habeas corpus, which has been called “the most efficient safeguard of the liberty of the subject.” It’s a writ, as you know, requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or court for release unless lawful grounds for detention are discovered. Well, that’s out the window, certainly in part, since the Patriot Act, passed shortly after 9/11.
And worse, do you know about “rendition,” which was the title of a 2007 film? “Rendition,” which featured Meryl Streep, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Reese Witherspoon, concerns the practice of sending a foreign criminal or suspected terrorist covertly to be interrogated in a country with less humane treatment of prisoners.
All of this is very troubling stuff, and “Strait of Gibraltar” asks us to consider these things—as well as the limits of personal trust, loyalty, and compassion. To its credit, the play does not attempt to provide answers; instead, it asks questions, and sends its audience out (some of us, anyway) nervously considering all this. It’s not cheery.
By the way, I want to give kudos to Amanda Sachtleben, media designer, who provides some provocative images, especially in Act I. I’m sure she is assisted by Kevin Frazier’s lighting and sound design.
The two leads, Ms. Birgel and Mr. Sims, seem a bit intimidated by the large responsibility they’ve been handed, especially in Act I. But they get stronger as the play proceeds and ultimately they’re quite believable in these two demanding roles.
As I implied earlier, the play is something of an unfinished symphony, but its themes and characters are so very vital and unnerving that you will be caught up in it. And attention must be paid.
For tickets and information, visit synchrotheatre.com.