Noura and Tareq are an Iraqi-Christian couple married for over 20 years in their 40’s living in New York City. They fled their native war-torn nation eight years ago and have now been awarded U.S. citizenship. Noura had been an architect and is now a part-time tutor. Tareq was a surgeon who had to work as a clerk at 7-Eleven when they first arrived but is currently employed as a medical orderly in a hospital. They have a precocious young son, Yazen. Melancholy Rafa’a is their childhood friend from their village who is a Muslim obstetrician and frequently drops in.
After much exposition and speechifying the play’s fulcrum is revealed with the arrival of Maryam. She is an orphaned single woman in her 20’s who grew up in a Catholic convent in Iraq. She is soon to go to California to study at Stanford University. Noura and Tareq have been sponsoring her but they’ve never met. Her visit promises to be a lovely holiday event as it’s Christmas Eve. The cordiality is shattered when after Maryam takes off her coat everyone can now see that she is quite pregnant. This incites a culture clash as she unapologetically intends to remain unmarried and raise the child herself.
In 90 minutes, Ms. Raffo packs in a great deal. We learn about Iraq’s past and present, religious lore, marital conflicts, unrequited love and the hardships of immigrants. The stiff treatment is schematic rather than polished and the resorting to soliloquies feels off. Without a defined plot, it plays out as a limp multi-character study that’s resolved with a talky and unconvincing denouement. Raffo does create appealing characters including the substantive title role which she herself plays.
Dark-haired and regal, Raffo with her melodious voice is towering, conveying all of the character’s complexities. That’s especially evident when she periodically dons a shawl with diva-like flair to go outside to have just one more cigarette as she has supposedly quit. The affable Nabil Elouahabi smoothly exhibits much range as Tareq. Mr. Elouahabi and Raffo have a breezy chemistry together and their big confrontation scene is moving.
The beaming and easygoing Matthew David is marvelous as Rafa’a. With a heavy accent and her radiant girlishness, Dahlia Azama makes some impact in the difficult part of Maryam. Child performer Liam Campora’s gee whiz characterization as Yazen is appropriate.
Director Joanna Settle’s solid physical staging is at odds with her fantastical flourishes. We see snow falling outside of the dwelling and later for apparent symbolism it snows inside. Periodic chanting in Arabic is heard when the actors are silent. There’s a sequence where the action stops and a team of stage crew members wearing black jumpsuits appear and put some presents under the tree and hand garments to some of the actors who put them on. Talk about being taken out the world of a play and for so little effect. Most jarring are the design elements that are technically accomplished but distracting.
Before the show begins the audience is greeted by the fascinating sight of scenic designer Andrew Lieberman’s grandiose set. It’s a large oval-shaped configuration framed by a lattice assembly of wood. Household items are arranged on side walls and counters. Off to the side is a long hallway suggesting spaciousness. There’s a large table and a Christmas tree in the center. In no way does this all suggest the New York City apartment of those of modest means. It is perhaps even more symbolism.
Masha Tsimring’s lighting design and Obadiah Eaves’ sound design both obtrusively contribute to an otherworldly dimension. Costume designer Tilly Grimes has Noura in some neat outfits and fine straightforward everyday wear for the rest of the company.
Noura’s nobility just isn’t matched by its stilted writing and extraneous execution.
Noura (through December 30, 2018)
Playwrights Horizons in association with Shakespeare Theatre Company
Mainstage Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission