Shesh Yak at Rattlestick Playwright’s Theatre (Closed February 22, 2015)

February 13, 2015 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Written by Laith Nakli
Directed by Bruce McCarty
Reviewed by Sander Gusinow
Theatre Reviews Limited

‘You made me hate Syria! You made me hate my home!’ howls a wrathful Jameel. Haytham, a gentle, middle-aged man, sits bound and gagged in a claustrophobic apartment as Jameel inflicts atrocity after atrocity on his fragile body. It’s the grim ritual of history and violence now playing at Rattlestick Theatre. Playwright/Performer Laith Nakli spins a tale of suffering past and present; a chilling, challenging play that swells from a few small embers into a fully fledged inferno.

It’s 2011. Haytham (Nakil) visits Jameel in his tiny Manhattan apartment. Haytham is a peaceful Syrian expatriate now trending on Twitter for his criticisms of Syria’s government. Haytham bunks with friend-of-a-friend Jameel (Zarif Kabier) during his visit to New York, where he plans to hold a rally with a certain Angelina Jolie. Jameel claims he fought hard to host a man he considers a hero to the Syrian people. They exchange rather pleasantries, share stories, play games… It’s all very civil until Jameel hears Haytham calling for Shesh Yak (or ‘six-one’, the best roll in backgammon) then all hell breaks loose.

Haytham committed a rather unforgivable offense to Jameel back in the old country. Without giving anything away, his crime could fit the very definition of brutality. Jameel won’t let Haytham away unscahthed; every strangle, leg snap, and cigarette burn is (at least to him) righteous fury. To us, though, it’s pure cruelty, speaking to the barbaric depths of which we are all capable.

Director Bruce McCarty keeps the play close and threatening, never allowing the audience to rest easy, or know what’s next to come. Nakil’s Haytham is a calm and cuddly contrast to Kabier’s intense, sporadic Jameel. The two men have the chemistry of an estranged father and son; currents of hate, love, and respect darting back and forth between them.

The biggest problem with Shesh Yak is in the pacing. Haytham and Jameel spend an awful lot of time on stories and semantics, so much so it’s hard to determine which expository tales are relevant to the two men and which ones aren’t. Even with such a brief running time, the lengthy diatribes can make the play feel sluggish. But what Shesh Yak does deliver are two beautifully broken characters. It’s rare to see a play in which the torturer and victim garner equal amounts of sympathy, but the history described in the play puts both men on trial.

Although a strictly Syrian discussion, vestiges of any sectarian conflict can be seen in Shesh Yak, from Israel to Iraq to Ireland. The circle of eye-for-an-eye will continue, posits Nakil, unless we have the courage to break the cycle and forgive. Until then, there’s only crying mothers and innocent blood spilled in the crossfire. Shesh Yak is the sort of play that’s difficult to watch but must to be seen, as it defies us all to break the never-ending cycle.