|L-R: Christopher Michael McLamb, Jessie Dean, Sarah Grace Sanders, Ruthy Froch, Joey LePage, John Gasper, and John Smiley in WELCOME TO THE KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA. Photo by Maria Baranova. |
Saudi Arabia is a land of stark contrasts. It is an immensely wealthy country and its government spends billions of dollars annually to provide free education and free health care to all its citizens – and yet an estimated quarter of its population live in poverty. Women are treated as beautiful princesses – protected, placed on pedestals, provided with the finest makeup and couture, and bedecked in jewelry – but then are forced to conceal themselves from the world beneath their abayat and are forbidden to drive or appear in public unaccompanied by a man. Foreign workers are welcomed with the greatest hospitality and are paid extravagantly – but then are virtually consigned to live in drab and stultifying Aramco compounds. The country is considered one of America’s staunchest allies in the Middle East – but it was the birthplace of Osama Bin Laden and is the nation that spawned the terrorists who blew up the World Trade Center on 9/11
Currently enjoying its world premiere at 59E59 Theaters, Welcome to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, written and directed by Luke Landric Leonard with music by Peter Stopschinski and lyrics by Katie Pearl and Leonard, is an extraordinary surrealistic theatrical production that brilliantly captures and exposes these contradictions. And most surprisingly (at least to me) in today’s politically correct world, Mr. Leonard has succeeded in telling his tale not from a liberal perspective, but from a relatively conservative, pro-life, chauvinistically American and Christian one.
On the surface, the play is a dark musical comedy focusing on the lives of two American expatriates in Saudi Arabia: Hank Brown (Joey LePage), a Protestant adventure-seeking high school chemistry teacher and Tina Murphy-Brown (Jessica Dean), his much more conventional, Christian God-fearing wife, as they attempt to navigate thelr way between the alien culture of Saudi Arabia and that of their home country. That requires them to deal with two British ex-pats who turn out to be their neighbors in the Aramco compound where they all are domiciled: Dick (John Smiley), a somewhat irrepressible Aramco employee, and his sexy and sexually provocative wife, Fanny (Sarah Grace Sanders) - as well as with Abdullah (Christopher Michael McLamb), a Saudi Arab associate, and his daughter Zillah (Ruthy Froch).
But as it turns out, the Browns have much more to deal with than a couple of sexually promiscuous and eccentric neighbors and an overtly hypocritical Arab and his daughter: they must also come to grips with their own consciences, particularly as they concern their unborn son Randy (John Gasper). Is Randy the incarnation of their repressed consciences? A mere figment of their imaginations? The omnipresent soul of their aborted child? The devil come for his due? However you may interpret him, it is he who enlarges the play from a simple theatrical tale to a surrealistic experience that will remain with you long after you have left the theater.
Leonard has peppered his play with a host of corny jokes but there is much more to them than initially meets the eye. There is more than a kernel of truth in virtually every one and most turn out to foreshadow or allude to much more significant developments in the play. It is a virtuoso use of humor in moving the story along.
There is little doubt in my mind that other theatre-goers will interpret this play quite differently from the way that I have (my wife, who accompanied me to this performance, already has) – but that is all to the good. It suggests that there may be even more to the play than I have discerned (or think I have), For what it is worth, however, I believe that the play presents a thinly veiled pro-life argument, creating an analogy between the abortion of fetuses to the intentional removal of premature babies from incubators, leaving them to die outside the incubator (read: mechanical womb). I think, too, that it exposes the foolishness of focusing on the trivial, at the expense of the truly meaningful: cold shouldering one’s third grade girlfriend doesn’t really hold a candle to decapitating an infidel. Additionally, I think it exposes just how malleable are our personalities and how little we know and understand one another (or even ourselves) and how, given the right (or wrong) circumstances, any of us might become so deranged as to become something other than what we ever were.
Finally, I think that it challenges the politically correct belief that all cultures are morally equivalent, i.e. that they may differ in details but that no one can say any one is better or worse (morally) than any other, only that they are different: on the contrary, the play suggests that American and Christian values of tolerance and humanity are, in fact, morally superior to those of Islamic fundamentalism (with its commitment to the absolute truths of the Quran and the legitimacy of beheading or crucifying infidels).
The play does hit a few false notes. I thought that the number that began “I am a child of entropy….” near the play’s end was pretentious as best and incoherent at worst, obfuscating rather than illuminating the play’s messages. But that said, the work succeeded in hitting its mark much more often than it failed, a credit both to the playwright and to the entire cast. Of the several cast members, all of whom truly deserve accolades, I was most impressed by Ms Dean who did a beautiful job of expressing Tina’s internal demons with skill and sensitivity; Mr. McLamb who, in the role of Abdullah, provided just the comic relief that the play required; and, of course, Mr. Gasper, without whose powerfully enigmatic presence, the play would not have succeeded.