You'd think that a play set in an "undisclosed" Homeland Security black site -- read torture chamber -- would generate some intense dramatic heat. Alas, this fails to be the case with Language Rooms, a new drama by the prolific Arab-American playwright, Yussef El Guindi (winner of the Steinberg/American Theater Critics Association's 2012 best-play award for Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World).
James Asher, founder of Nibras, New York's first Arab-American theater company, plays Ahmed, an Egyptian-born translator who has been assigned to interrogate a suspected Middle East terrorist. El Guindi spends a lot of time -- all of Act One, actually -- in a build-up to the interrogation. In a long expository scene, we learn that Ahmed isn't quite trusted by his superior, Kevin (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, miscast as an African-American). This upsets Ahmed, of course, and makes him turn to Nasser (William Dao), his fellow-interrogator, for help and counsel.
As the "designated Muslim" on the team, Nasser isn't very forthcoming, though, perhaps because he privately suspects that Ahmed might indeed be a spy. Paranoia is the order of the day as the three operatives play mind-games with each other. The wordplay is clever and sinister but dramatically unsatisfying.
In Act Two Ahmed, desperate to prove his loyalty as an American – and to hold on to his job — finally gets to confront the putative terrorist, Samir (Terry Lamb) . . . who turns out to be his father.
The revelation strains credulity, but El Guindi manages to keep his play from imploding by coming up with sharp exchanges between father and son. Political drama gives way to domestic drama, though. The larger issues such as illegal detention and the use of torture get pushed to one side by the playwright, in favor of a rehashing of family problems.
Disappointing as Language Rooms is, there is much to commend about the production: the actors do crisp, professional work, and Odcikin's direction is sure-handed throughout.