Center REPertory Company, the resident professional theater company at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts, tends toward light entertainment in its main stage season. It just finished a run of a madcap theatrical adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and will be finishing up the season with the musical Sweet Charity in May. But Center REP also offers up an alternative menu of quirkier fare in its Off Center season in the intimate Knight Stage 3, the smallest of the Lesher’s three theaters.
The latest of these is the Bay Area premiere of Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World, a romantic comedy by Egyptian American playwright Yussef El Guindi, a former Bay Area resident who’s had several of his plays produced in San Francisco by Golden Thread Productions (Language Rooms, Back of the Throat, Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes). Pilgrims premiered at A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle in 2011 and went on to win the 2012 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award.
Compared to his aforementioned darker comedies informed by the paranoia and civil rights abuses of the “War on Terror,” Pilgrims Musa and Sheri is a relatively straightforward modern romantic comedy. Musa (a starry-eyed and eager-to-please Gabriel Marin) is a cab driver, a recent Egyptian-American immigrant who says he learned English from hardboiled detective novels but doesn’t really talk like it. Sheri (Rebecca Schweitzer, electric with nervous energy) is a neurotic, Caucasian New York diner waitress with a nonstop stream of chatter about how she doesn’t want Musa to think she’s easy even though they’re probably totally going to have sex.
When we first see them, he’s invited her up his apartment for a drink at 2:00am, while giving her a ride home from her shift. Never mind that Muslims aren’t supposed to drink; the last thing he wants to talk about is God, even though Sheri finds the subject fascinating. It seems like the perfect setup for a one-night stand, which is why she wants to make it clear she’s not that kind of girl, though she goes back and forth on that score.
The budding romance is sweetly tentative and totally charming, with Sheri often hilariously oversharing about the seemingly countless past mistakes she doesn’t want to repeat, and Musa regarding her with gentlemanly reserve and near-speechless wonder. Any culture clash between them is refreshingly not a big deal, more an object of enthusiastic interest than any sort of barrier. Musa’s friend Tayyib, however, cautions him against getting too serious. “You cannot be a foreigner twice in this country,” he warns, clarifying that it’s important to be able to be able to be himself at home if he has to be a stranger out in the world. Tayyib is played by local stage and screen actor Carl Lumbly (Alias, Cagney and Lacey), with amiable and knowing charm. Interestingly, this is the second play in a row that casts Lumbly as Marin’s mentor, after San Francisco Playhouse’s The MF with the Hat in February.
One thing Musa declined to mention is that he’s already engaged, to Gamila, a traditional, hijab-wearing Muslim woman who grew up in the United States (a strong, no-nonsense Lena Hart) and just happens to be away at the moment. Also traveling abroad but still a presence in the play is Musa’s roommate Abdallah (an gentle, glowing Dorian Lockett), who is on a pilgrimage to Mecca but still shows up to give blissfully enthusiastic monologues about the wonders of the American melting pot.
Center REP artistic director Michael Butler gives the play a brisk and nuanced staging, and the cast really makes you feel for these characters, especially when Musa’s worlds inevitably come crashing together. Butler also designed the clever set, with piles of luggage in lieu of furniture. (Tayyib is a luggage salesman, and there’s much in the play about traveling, as the title indicates.) Lighting designer Ray Oppenheimer nicely captures the harsh lighting of Musa’s cheap room and the mysterious green luminescence of wherever it is Abdallah’s speaking from.
Despite some big speeches about assimilation, connection to your own culture, and reinventing yourself (one of which ties everything up at the end a little too glibly), it’s ultimately a simple, touching love story about people’s expectations of each other and themselves. And yes, also about the mystique of America as a place where identity is up for grabs. El Guindi’s dialogue is funny and eloquent, as smart about the anxieties of flirtation as its is about righteous fury unleashed. In many ways it’s an unromanticized love story of deeply flawed and possibly unsuitable people who have fallen hard for each other, but ultimately that’s what’s so romantic about it.
Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World runs through May 12, 2013 at Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. For tickets and information visit centerrep.org.
All photos by Alessandra Mello.