Hotter than Egypt
Yussef El Guindi
Marin Theatre Company, in Co-Production with A Contemporary Theatre
Wisconsinites Jean and Paul are in exotic Egypt to bask in the winter sun, sail on the Nile on feluccas, and relish the history of the museums – all as part of their twenty-fourth wedding anniversary celebration. Engaged and soon to be married, Cairenes Maha and Seif are the visiting couple’s private tour guides, a first outing for Seif as he joins the business his fiancé has already successfully established. As they all sip drinks in the Americans’ luxurious hotel room (whiskey for the visitors, fruit juices for the guides), the air is polite on the surface with smiles all around; but with the conversation moving into religion and politics, there is a palpable tension creeping quickly into the room.
In fact, it only takes a few opening words of Yussef El Guindi’s brilliantly crafted script to expose the cultural gaps, presumptions, and clashes that the outwardly polite chitchat can no longer overlook. In Marin Theatre Company’s world premiere that is co-produced with Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre, Yussef El Guindi’s Hotter than Egypt soon sizzles with the spilling out of assumptions, jabs, and secrets that open several Pandora’s boxes between and within the two couples we meet. The more the situations bristle with relationship and cultural tensions throughout the hour, forty-minute evening, the more Yussef El Guindi continuously injects delicious one-liners that bite and tell their own comic truth, resulting in a highly engaging, fast-moving, thoroughly entertaining Hotter than Egypt that is every minute a dramedy from opening to end.
As he jiggles his whiskey and walks around with an air of outward affability talking “argumentative, for the sake of argument,” Paul Morgen Stetler tries his best to convince both his Egyptian guides and us as an audience that his fifty-something Paul is the best model of an open-minded, culturally sensitive, and sex-role-conscious American male. We actually want to believe him at first, so competent is the acting on both the parts of the actor and his character. But it only takes a few lines like “Islam has done a lot of great things, I’ve read” or “I respect customs and traditions … but occasionally I do like to call out people on their BS” for the groans and cynical chuckles to begin coming from audience members as his ruse no longer works. As the play progresses, Paul only digs himself into deeper holes when his warped version of himself as a liberated male and loyal husband begins to fizzle into more fiction than fact. Through it all, Paul Morgen Stetler does all he can to elicit our liking and even empathy for his Paul. He almost succeeds at times due to the combined efforts of actor, director, and script; but in the end, the the audience – especially those female – voice freely their judgment of the real Paul.
Paul goes toe-to-toe in his observations and analysis of both Egyptian and American culture and history with Seif, who is not blind to the faults of his own country (“Sometimes this country makes me want to smash something”) but also pointedly responds to Paul’s aforementioned, BS comment with, “I think straightforward is for people who live with a cushion under their bottom.” Balancing carefully his conversation with Paul between polite and pointed while doing all he can to maintain a plastered smile, Seif is barely holding it together as a tour guide, as evidenced when in Arabic he asks Maha, “What are we, performing monkeys?” (Part of the playwright’s comic touch is that the Egyptians speak with slight but noticeable accents when talking with the Americans but speak in clear, unaccented English to each other when speaking Arabic.)
Wasim No’mani quickly lures us as an audience to genuinely like Seif, to relish in his honesty and his humor, and to root for him to win when at times it seems sure that he is in an untenable, unwinnable situation. In a play where we keep laughing even as everything seems to be falling apart, Seif reminds us that humor is a “survival tool” – with his advice bring “carry it wherever you go.” His street-smart wisdom that is infused with much universal truth adds, “Money is better, yes, but humor is cheaper.” Yussef El Guindi showers Seif with many of the evening’s best lines, and Wasim No’mani capitalizes on each and every one. His Seif also proves to be a man of highest integrity that is put to the test several times, justly winning our admiration.
His fiancé, Maha, is business savvy and driven to succeed in life. She is not happy with the way things are going in Egypt (as evidenced by the loud and rioting protestors we hear from time to time in the streets outside). She is searching for her own path to something better, and she is not going to permit Seif’s cynic views of the tourists or his own dreams of what their life together should be ruin her chances. Naseem Etemad excels in portraying a woman with a vision where the drive to get there causes her to make rash decisions that she later is willing to re-examine with both her carefully honed rationality and the heart she almost neglects. The journey of Maha is one that women everywhere, in every culture, are often called on to make where societal and economic obstacles try to block the dreams they pursue. Naseem Etemad’s Maha navigates that journey in ways also – like Seif – win our greatest admiration.
But perhaps the most difficult journey of the evening is the road that Jean must travel. As she initially walks into the hotel room where her husband and the two guides await her, she returns from a sun-filled day at the pool in a bikini top and a towel wrapped around her bare legs and feet. Immediately she faces recriminating remarks from her “culturally sensitive” husband, the first time of many over the next twenty-four hours when Jean feels she must scream in frustration – something that in fact she does in a silent but terrifying manner as part of John Langs’ directorial mastery.
The depths are incredible that Jen Taylor digs into her soul and being as an actor in order to help us witness and understand the transformation that Jean undergoes. Our first glimpse of Jean is one of a somewhat callous and aloof American tourist who just wants to have a good time; but that is not really the Jean that we soon get to know. There is a history that she examines as if for the first time but one that she recognizes and from which she learns much about herself, her strength, and her own possibilities. As we do for Seif, we find ourselves rooting for Jean to find a place of life’s smooth sailing even as we fear she is in fact too near a point of breaking.
Rounding out the cast is Ahmad Kamal in a series of walk-on parts where his silent countenance as a boatman speaks volumes, his humorous bursting in as a doorman suggests to those inside a bold but forbidden move, and his outrage as a museum guard demonstrates the political minefield Seif is fighting both to resist and to survive.
Much of the evening’s success goes not only to this imported-from-Seattle cast and to the co-production’s director but also to a top-notch creative team. Carey Wong’s set combines beautiful aspects of the rich and the not-so-rich as well as the current and the ancient Egypt. The lighting design of Jeff Rowlings particularly shines magnificently when it creates the final touch to the set designer’s magical boat ride on the Nile. Johanna Melamed’s sound design fills in gaps of things we cannot see but need to know are happening in order to have a full vision of the current Egyptian environment while composer Nihan Yesil’s musical score is mesmerizing and takes us on a Middle Eastern tour through its many melodies.
At one point, Jean says, “I don’t know why people fantasize about immortality; we can barely get through this life.” In Hotter than Egypt, Yussef El Guindi reminds us time and again – especially through the wisecracks and wise insights of Seif – that we can get through it, especially if we remember to laugh as well as scream. Marin Theatre Company in this co-production with A Contemporary Theatre bring that lesson home in a fully riveting, sometimes unsettling, and continuously comic-filled evening that is a winning world premiere.
Rating: 5 E
A Theatre Eddy’s Best Bet
Hotter than Egypt continues through April 24, 2022 in a world-premiere, co-production by Marin Theatre Company and A Contemporary Theatre on the Marin Theatre Company main stage, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley, CA. Tickets are available online at www.marintheatre.org and by calling 415-388-5208 Tuesday – Friday, noon – 5 p.m. or by emailing email@example.com .
Photos Credit: Kevin Berne