Silvia Cassini’s A Man Like You hurls us into a deadly thicket of politics and diplomacy, international business intrigue, the clash of cultures, and jihad. Sharply directed by Yudelka Heyer for RED Soil Productions, it depicts a months-long conversation-confrontation between a British diplomat, Patrick North (Matthew Stannah), and Abdi (Jeffrey Marc), a Somali radical who, in the aftermath of the massacre by Somali terrorists at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, has taken North captive for reasons that turn out to be not exactly what we, or the kidnapped diplomat, may have expected.
Captor and captive come to an unexpected degree of mutual if fraught respect as they await successful negotiations for North’s release. Centering the production is Marc’s striking, nuanced performance as the young, well-educated Somali Muslim – still a child, in North’s eyes – who seeks more from his captive than ransom money. On the surface, the character calls to mind the Oscar-nominated turn by Barkhad Abdi (is the name a coincidence?) as the leader of a band of Somali pirates who commandeer a cargo ship in the film Captain Phillips, based on a true story.
But Cassini’s Abdi is a much more intellectual spirit, and more than a match for North’s principled if fatally flawed perspective on the mission of diplomacy. The play shows the two men gradually understanding one another in a compressed but convincing drama of ideas and ideals. Only Stannah’s confusing accent, sounding sometimes British, sometimes American, distracts from the visceral believability of the action.
As interludes to the tense scenes in North’s cell, his wife Elizabeth gives us the perspective of a family bereft in the turmoil of uncertainty. Jenny Boote, a Londoner who naturally has no trouble convincing us she’s English, admirably meets the tricky challenge of creating a compelling character through monologues.
Equally strong, and at the opposite end of the scale of human sensitivity, is Andrew Clarke as Hassan, the almost wordless thug-enforcer who provides the brawn to Abdi’s brain. Brutal and unbreakably threatening, he effectively conveys the anger and frustration that lie behind so much of man’s inhumanity to man.
After all, what’s the real difference, Abdi demands, between the slaughter at Westgate and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq? Abdi is this play’s great creation. In Marc’s taut portrayal, he bushwhacks his way through the tangle of motivations and allegiances that make our political conflicts so intractable, dragging North, and us, with him.
It’s hard to catch every point he makes as the dense scenes zoom kaleidoscopically by, but he makes an indelible impression, especially in the tiny downtown IATI theater where the action is practically in the audience’s faces. Heyer’s staging smartly turns the boxy space into an only slightly enlarged refraction of North’s cell, with its grimy metal cot and bucket, exposed wiring, and shax game board – with bottlecaps as pieces – the one arena where the hostage consistently beats his captor.
There’s a long tradition of captivity dramas. To name just a few, Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman is well known; Terre Haute by Edmund White posits a meeting between Gore Vidal and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh; and Samuel Beckett’s heroine in Happy Days is buried up to her waist, then her neck. Few scenarios can concentrate a stage drama more effectively than imprisonment and interrogation. Cassini’s play adds a rich chapter to this powerful subgenre, skillfully forcing us to face some of the ugly realities of the modern age and delivering a powerful dramatic punch.
A Man Like You first played in Nairobi earlier this year. Its U.S. premiere production runs until July 31 at the IATI Theater, 64 East 4th Street, New York City. Tickets are available online or by phone at 800-838-3006. Go see it, and go alert.