When was the last time you saw a “tragipoliticomedy about allegiance, struggle, and crisis”? That’s how the Alliance Theatre press release refers to “Tennis in Nablus,” their current offering at the Hertz stage, running through Feb. 21. The playwright is Ismail Khalidi, the sixth winner of the Alliance’s Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition; actually he’s won several national awards.
“Tennis in Nablus” is set in Palestine, 1939. An Arab revolt, begun in 1936, has almost succeeded in driving out the occupying British. But “almost” is a dirty word: The Palestinian independence movement never recovered from the defeat of the rebellion in 1939. Mr. Khalidi’s argument is, at least in part, that colonization exacerbated Jewish/Arab enmity.
If all this sounds frightfully complicated, fret not: David O. Selznick’s production of “Gone With the Wind” had its world premiere in December that same year. A sacrilegious non sequitur, you say? Not at all. The charm of “Tennis in Nablus” is discovering that the humor and absurdity of life never cease, even in the most tense and appalling of times.
To wit, the occupying British are seen as complete buffoons: General Falbour (Bart Hansard) and Lieutenant Duff (Joe Knezevich) are more concerned with costume balls and tennis matches than in overseeing Palestine. (Or so it seems; and one of the main themes here is that things are not what they seem; imprisonment and violence are always lurking—no humor there.)
The fiery Palestinian activist Yusef (Demosthenes Chrysan) and his wife Ambara (Suehyla El-Attar) bicker good-naturedly, but an ominous wartime seriousness hovers (two fine portrayals, incidentally). His nephew Tariq (Bhavesh Patel), at first all business and unpolitical, makes the startling, heady discovery that being known as a rebel hero is quite intoxicating.
The Laurel and Hardy award of the evening goes to Jim Sarbh and Michael Simpson, who play military subordinates Rajib and Michael O’Donegal, respectively; these two are sympathetic to the Palestinian prisoners. They are not simply comedic; they put a touching, humanizing face to a situation that is soon to spiral darkly out of control into World War II. Mr. Sarbh and Mr. Simpson lend a light touch to their scenes that is close to flawless.
Perhaps playwright Khalidi’s greatest triumph is that somehow glimmers of the truth and the absurdity of human existence emerge from “Tennis at Nablus.” In a corner of the world with complex and seemingly unsolvable problems, he shows us human beings whom we wish we knew better.
Director Peggy Shannon (artistic director of the Sacramento Theatre company) directs with a polished, subtle hand. The casting (Harriet Bass) is first rate. Oh, here and there the pacing is just a tad slow, and the second act probably tops the first; but I think Mr. Khalidi has a stunning future. If I were he, I’d be over the moon with this world premiere—what a launching pad!
Perhaps you wonder how the Kandeda winner is selected; I did, and I asked Robert Saxon, Associate Director of Communications for the Alliance. He very kindly responded: “It begins with a panel of Alliance staffers who read and evaluate the submitted scripts. The in-house panel selects five finalists…whose scripts are sent to a national panel of three theatre artists for judging. In conjunction with Alliance Theatre leadership, the judges select the winner.” Now you know all.