Where: Goodman Theatre, Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through Nov. 19
By ANNE SPISELMAN
In a New City article included in the press kit for “Yasmina’s Necklace” at Goodman Theatre, playwright Rohina Malik is quoted as saying “You never want to rush it (a play) into production. When you write a play, it should stand up for fifty or a hundred years. That takes time.”
“Yasmina’s Necklace” certainly wasn’t rushed into production. It was presented as a reading during Goodman’s New Stages Festival in 2009, then developed some more and given a world premiere directed by Ann Filmer at 16th Street Theater in 2016. Filmer also directed this full production in the Owen, the result of more work, and much of the 16th St. cast is returning.
Unfortunately, this Chicago-set rom-com isn’t likely to stand up for 10 or 20 years, much less 50 or 100. In fact, some elements already seem dated, especially given that it is positioned as a timely treatment of immigrant-refugee issues. It was written before hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, for example, so Puerto Rican refugees aren’t even mentioned, and the bias of Sara, a Puerto Rican convert from Catholicism to Islam, against refugees (as opposed to immigrants) comes across as even more wrong than it is meant to be.
Sara (Laura Crotte) is the meddlesome mother of Sam (Michael Perez), who has abandoned his Arabic name to avoid discrimination against Muslims and further his career as a financial analyst. His father is Iraqi-born Ali (Amro Salama), so Sam, who is not at all religious, describes himself as a “salad.” He also hasn’t gotten over his divorce from a Christian American woman, and his parents, who consider him damaged goods because he’s divorced, want nothing more than to arrange a marriage between their son and a “nice Muslim girl,” insisting that love comes after marriage.
Sam is having none of it but reluctantly agrees to meet 34-year-old artist Yasmina (Susaan Jamshidi) and her father, Musa (Rom Barkhordar), recent refugees from war-ravaged Iraq by way of Syria and Turkey. Imam Kareem (Allen Gilmore), who suggested the match and told Ari and Sara that Musa was a dentist, acts as a go-between.
Many of the scenes follow a format familiar from television sitcoms or even old Neil Simon plays. Sam and Yasmina despise each other at first, but after he offers to help her with the paperwork to set up a not-for-profit to help other refugees, especially women, they start to get to know each other, and friendship blossoms into love. Meanwhile, status-conscious Sara, becomes skeptical about the match, because she thinks the Imam deceived them into believing Musa was a dentist when he’s unemployed, and she sizes up Yasmina as mentally unstable based partly on her dark paintings.
While Sam and Yasmina’s contrasting views on the importance of their Muslim identity—she proudly wears a hijab and a pendant in the shape of Iraq, the “necklace” of the title—are an impediment to their romance, more detrimental (at least from her point of view) is the emotional baggage she brings with her from the homeland she didn’t want to leave. Repeatedly telling Sam she’s “not normal” and feels like an “alien,” she gradually recounts her horrific back story, part of which we see in flashbacks. It starts with finding her mother dead on the side of the road and includes terrifying and tragic incidents involving her childhood friend, Amir (Martin Hanna), an unnamed Man (Salar Ardebill), and a Syrian Officer (Frank Sawa). She admits that her paintings are a kind of therapy.
Yasmina also has a dark secret she hasn’t told anyone. She tries to tell Sam a couple of times before they are married, but her concerns are brushed aside by him, her father, and even the Imam—on other words, all the men in her life. This is odd in a play meant to show that Islam is inclusive and not sexist, as is the fact that the marriage ceremony is a covenant between the groom and the bride’s father. More problematic, however, is that the secret is telegraphed to the audience long before it is revealed, so the big moment is anticlimactic.
Formulaic as it is, “Yasmina’s Necklace” is saved by Jamshidi. Her Yasmina not only radiates fierce intelligence, resilience, sadness, and a whole lot more, she also displays a dry sense of humor and impeccable comic timing. When Sam lets slip that she’s “fob” (fresh off the boat), for instance, she shoots back that he’s an SOB. In the excruciatingly awkward scene of the families’ first meeting, her obedient responses to her father, barely hiding defiance, are a highlight.
Filmer is a sensitive director and surrounds Jamshidi with a capable cast, but I found a couple of the performances annoyingly over-the-top and one or two rather bland. The one that grew on me was Perez’s Sam. He’s lightweight compared to Yasmina, as are his trials and tribulations, but his increasing appreciation of her is appealing.
Joe Schermoly’s scenic design, featuring Musa’s living room and Ali and Sara’s dining room separated by clerestory arches, is workmanlike but doesn’t highlight their contrasting economic conditions as well as it could. The other technical elements are serviceable.
Malik clearly is a passionate playwright and her heart is in the right place, but “Yasmina’s Necklace” needs some serious revisions to rescue it from pitfalls like stock situations, clumsy exposition and, at times, preachiness.