In the Middle Eastern game of Backgammon, the Shesh means the number 6 on the dice and the Yak stands for the number 1.
In 2011, Haytham, a middle-aged Syrian political activist has come to New York City from Washington, D.C., to appear on a television news panel show to comment about the recent Syrian revolution. A mutual acquaintance has arranged for him to stay in the apartment of Jameel, a Syrian-born television writer in his 30’s, who’s been in the United States since he was a teenager.
After an extended period of strained, expositional comic chitchat, and cups of tea, they begin a game of Backgammon. The play then takes a very dark turn as it is revealed that both men are not who they said they are.
Ariel Dorfman’s award winning play Death and The Maiden was produced in London in 1991, on Broadway in 1992, and was filmed by Roman Polanski in 1994. In addition, it has also been performed around the world. It dealt with a woman who was raped and tortured (in an unnamed South American country) who encounters her torturer, later ties him up, and a fierce confrontation ensues.
Theatergoers knowledgeable with that work will find Shesh Yak very familiar territory. Those who aren’t will still find this play tediously predictable as this scenario has been played out in a number of other dramatic works. The writing is flat, formulaic and rudimentary.
Director Bruce McCarty has staged it very efficiently. Scenic designer John McDermott’s detailed unit set expertly renders the slightly shabby NYC apartment with the appropriate configuration and furnishings. Lighting designer Peter West and sound designer Janie Bullard’s skillful efforts also contribute to the professionalism of the production.
The author, the affable Laith Nakli, also plays the part of the older man. As an actor he is much more successful. It’s a sharply focused performance that veers adeptly from comic to very dramatic.
As the younger man, the talented Zarif Kabier is saddled with having to giggle a lot, experiencing headaches, and delivering long, painful speeches. Unavoidably appearing overwrought, he struggles with all of the forced characteristics of the role, but does create a fine characterization.
If two famous virtuoso stars had performed Shesh Yak, it would have considerable attraction and could perhaps transcend the weak material. With two capable actors it doesn’t.
Shesh Yak (extended through February 28, 2015)
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.rattlestick.org
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission