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'Threesome' begins as pure bedroom comedy, then slowly sours into muted seriousness, finally exploding into a cutting climax as secrets of sexual politics and terrible events of the recent past are revealed.

Theater Review (NYC Off-Broadway): ‘Threesome’ by Yussef El Guindi

Quinn Franzen, Alia Attallah and Karan Oberoi in 'Threesome' at 59e59. Photo by Hunter Canning
Quinn Franzen, Alia Attallah and Karan Oberoi in ‘Threesome’ at 59e59. Photo by Hunter Canning

The tensions between nakedness and nudity, shame and self-mastery, and comedy and drama fuel Yussef El Guindi’s powerful Threesome, imported from Portland Center Stage and now Off-Broadway at 59E59 Theaters through August 23. A witty, inventive script and a gutsy, powerhouse central performance by Alia Attallah electrify this tale of an Egyptian-American couple confronting their traumatic past in two bedrooms, one real, one fantastical.

Threesome merits the descriptor “comedy-drama” in an unusual way. Rather than being a dramatic story with a humorous edge, it begins as pure bedroom comedy, then slowly sours into muted seriousness, finally exploding into a cutting climax. To draw this arc, the award-winning El Guindi conceived a pretty daring scenario. Leila (Attallah), a writer, and her boyfriend Rashid (Karan Oberoi), a photographer, have invited Doug (Quinn Franzen), a co-worker and also a photographer, into their bed for a sexual encounter. They’ve done the necessary medical screening but, as it turns out, not the needed emotional preparation for the experiment.

In Act One, Leila and Rashid, and later Doug, spool out intellectual and emotional and interpersonal threads of pain, discomfort, and backstory. (“I’m sorry, is this revenge sex?”) Only very gradually do we get an inkling of what motivated Leila to set up the encounter. As the theater signage warns, there’s nudity. But it’s of an unsexy kind, played for laughs. And it sets things up for the striking conclusion of Act Two, which gives us the opposite of that goofy nudity in two ways.

There’s the raw nakedness of the human body as an expression of power. And there’s the head-to-foot black covering called the abaya, which Doug tells us most women wore (presumably in Iraq or Afghanistan) when he was a photographer embedded – an ironic word in this context – with the military.

A metaphorical abaya drives the story, secrets kept for the sake of preserving love. Leila isn’t just the biggest personality in this trio, she’s also suffered the most. And she’s kept something important from Rashid, something that happened in Cairo, a secret that has snaked dishonesty into their life in America, twists of omission, as Leila and Rashid discuss in so many words during their pointed and pointedly funny banter before Doug makes his appearance in their bedroom in Act One. Of course omission is a key to the scriptwriting art, too, and El Guindi saves his revelations to build suspense.

Doug turns out to be connected to Leila’s forthcoming book, whose text she has kept from Rashid because of what it reveals, in a way that feels like an undeserved plot shortcut. And I had trouble buying it when, in Act Two, Rashid bursts in on the photo shoot for the book jacket in a drunken rage yet after a few minutes speaks as articulately as he did during the pair’s sober Act One argument.

But Leila’s fascinating character and the slowly revealed complexity of Doug’s outweigh those discomforts and make this a most worthy evening of theater. Directed smoothly by Chris Coleman, artistic director of Portland Center Stage, and presented by Portland Center Stage and A Contemporary Theatre (ACT), Threesome flows crisply and sears artfully, at just the right length. Alison Heryer’s costumes and the team-designed sets are perfect. It runs through August 23. Visit the 59E59 Theaters website or call 212-279-4200 for tickets.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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