Terry Lamb in 'Language Rooms' at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. (David Allen Studio )
Illegal detention and state-sanctioned torture would hardly seem a likely basis for comedy. Yet playwright Yussef El Guindi exploits those subjects to surprisingly hilarious effect in “Language Rooms,” a co-production of Golden Thread Productions and the Latino Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
Not that El Guindi shortchanges the wrenching implications of his subject matter. When the play switches tracks from the amusing to the appalling, you will feel it, deep down in your gut.
The action is set in 2005 at a CIA “black site,” where agents extract information from various suspects – mostly, as is implied, of Middle Eastern extraction. It’s here that Ahmed (James Asher), an Egyptian whose family immigrated to the U.S. when he was a boy, plies his grim trade, along with fellow operative Nasser (William Dao), the only other Muslim in the facility.
But whereas Nasser has succeeded in assimilating into the CIA ranks, Ahmed is a socially awkward outsider who has compensated for his feelings of “otherness” with his jingoistic commitment to his adopted country. That makes it doubly shocking when he learns that his loyalty has been called into question.
To test Ahmed’s commitment to the “cause,” Ahmed’s boss, Kevin (dryly hilarious Mujahid Abdul-Rashid), assigns Ahmed to interrogate a key new suspect. When Ahmed learns that the “insurgent” in question is none other than his father, Samir (Terry Lamb, in a towering and brave performance), he is forced to question just where his path in life has taken him and where his loyalties actually lie.
That conceit – CIA agent son interrogating his own father -- seems a trifle far-fetched, but given the slightly surreal trappings of El Guindi’s play, it works. More important, it facilitates a cogent examination of American identity and the feelings and expectations of Middle Eastern immigrants who have been thrust into the American mainstream.
As we learn, Samir and his wife, now deceased, made the difficult decision to emigrate from their native Cairo to the U.S. – a wrenching transition for them both. However, Samir’s pride in Ahmed’s apparently seamless integration made the move seem worth it, despite Ahmed’s growing reluctance to associate with his distinctly un-American and Old World father.
In a well-paced and well-considered staging, director Evren Odcikin strikes a delicate balance between comic romp and tragedy. Kevin, a faux-sincere bureaucrat whose circular dialogue seamlessly blends Orwell with Oprah, humorously dominates the first act. Imagine a motivational seminar set in Auschwitz and you’ll get an idea of how Kevin runs things.
The second act takes a more serious turn as Ahmed confronts his father over his recent association with a terrorist sheik -- an interaction that waxes needlessly repetitive at points and could stand some judicious trimming. A self-loathing everyman whose moral compass points anywhere but Mecca, Ahmed is a striking contrast to Samir, a man comfortable in his own skin and his own faith.
The question of whether Samir is innocent or guilty is left wisely unanswered. The clash of cultures, and the clash of father and son at painful cultural odds, is the real point of this complex, ambitious, very funny and very moving play.
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“Language Rooms,” Los Angeles Theatre Center, Theatre 2, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 24. $40. (866) 811-4111, www.thelatc.org. Running time: 2 hours. Note: There is nudity in this production.