At times, it seems like Yussef El Guindi’s new play, Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World, is overextending itself. A cumbersomely titled romantic comedy now having its world premiere at ACT Theatre, the play has ambitions to make grand statements about human interconnectedness and the way our universal characteristics bind us together more than our cultural differences tear us apart. These are perhaps admirable ambitions, but the play doesn’t quite get there.
Fortunately, these lofty ideas don’t crowd out the play’s real strengths—a sparkling stable of dialogue and authentic characterizations that feel rooted in reality. For the most part, Musa and Sheri is solidly grounded in what feel like real places, populated by real people, and that goes a lot further than some of the more mystical elements at play here.
El Guindi brings us right into the relational fray, with waitress Sheri (Carol Roscoe) coming up to the cramped New York City apartment of Musa (Shanga Parker), a cab driver who’s picked her up several times at the end of her late-night shift. He’s a quiet, seemingly lonely soul—an Egyptian immigrant who’s only been in the States a short time. She’s a born-and-bred American, with an inability to keep her insecurities and neuroses anywhere but on full display.
The first scene has a marvelously constructed sense of the comedy of inner conflict, as Sheri vacillates between her desire to sleep with Musa and her desire not to come off like a slut, all the while being nagged by an irrational fear that he just might be a bad guy. It’s pretty apparent to the audience that Musa is not a bad guy, and their eventual romantic consummation is a sweet moment.
The inevitable wrinkle arises when we learn of the existence of Gamila (Kimberley Sustad), an American Muslim more traditionally suitable for Musa, whom he neglected to mention. She’s away visiting his family in Egypt, but a surprise early return results in a scene of immense vulnerability for Roscoe, who embraces the awkwardness with gusto.
The three-way struggle that ensues features prime performances from all three actors, but it’s hard not to feel like the play gives Musa the easy way out, allowing him to remain a genial, likeable guy who’s mostly an innocent bystander. Ultimately, Musa and Sheri is a comedy, but it flits over the potential emotional carnage a little too easily.
Still, each scene is a distinct pleasure, with El Guindi’s script and Anita Montgomery’s direction giving the actors room to breathe. The pace is unhurried, but the dialogue stays snappy, keeping the proceedings focused.
Turning in strong supporting performances are Sylvester Foday Kamara as Musa’s slick luggage salesman pal Tayyib and Anthony Leroy Fuller as Abdallah, Musa’s roommate who is on his pilgrimage to Mecca. Fuller is buoyantly jovial in his scenes, where he appears as an apparition, but his presence seems tacked on as a spiritual afterthought to what is an essentially earthy play.
Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World is on stage at ACT now through July 17. Tickets are available for purchase at ACT’s website.