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When Leila and Rashid invite Doug over to be part of an intimate 'Threesome,' Doug is excited and feels he must accept to overcome a hurdle. But things are not what they seem for all three individuals. By the time their evening is over, the unexpected has happened and they will never be the same again.

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

Karan Oberoi, Alia Attallah, 'Threesome,' 59E59th Theaters, Yussef El Guindi, Chris Coleman
Karan Oberoi (top) and Alia Attallah (bottom) in ‘Threesome,’ part of the 5A Season at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Hunter Canning

From the moment we step into the theater and view the bed center stage and see the appetizers and coffee downstage center, our attention is piqued for a “fun” evening. Inferring from the colloquial lingo of the title, suggesting a ménage à trois, the comfortable-looking king-sized bed further titillates us to expect that Threesome, playing at 59E59th Theaters will be about sexual encounters, though there is no apparent clue in the Act One set about whose apartment it is, or who the threesome might be. These are clever choices by director Chris Coleman and the astute audience member will note the intention to be opaque and mysterious which is a lure.

Soon enough the lights come up on two of the threesome dressed in modest sleeping attire. They converse and relax in bed and smoke electronic cigarettes. It is a humorous play on Hollywood films’  pretentious/gratuitous “after-sex smoking scenes.” But immediately, Coleman and El Guindi reveal that this is not to be a typical “threesome,” for the couple is unique and engaging and the dialogue is the antithesis of trite movie dialogue about “sex” and male-female relationships. Indeed,  from the characters’ quick-fire, humorous banter, we are thrust in the middle of the prickly word jabs and counter punches between this couple of Middle Eastern extraction. Photographer Rashid is portrayed by Karan Oberoi in an accomplished, spot on, well-heeled performance. His partner, book author Leila  is inhabited by Alia Attallah in a heartfelt, powerful, and perceptive portrayal.

Quinn Franzen, Alia Attallah, Karan Oberoi, 'THREESOME,' 59E59th Theaters
L-R: Quinn Franzen, Alia Attallah, and Karan Oberoi in ‘Threesome,’ part of the 5A Season at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Hunter Canning

These two are obviously in an intense relationship, but we are unsure whether the extent of the commitment has moved into marriage or is in a long engagement. Like everything in this play of twists, suspenseful turns, powerful reveals, shocks, and surprises, Yussef El Guindi’s Threesome, channeled brilliantly by the actors, muddles any shallow expectations. As we become entangled in the playwright’s clever snare, El Guindi connives us into thinking we are watching characters and a situation which we are perhaps familiar with. But he hides the obvious in “plain sight,” and as an excellent story teller of these people’s lives, he leaves huge gaps in the picture and doesn’t intimate that he will be forthcoming later.

Thus, we are lulled into thinking we might intuit the outcome. But during the course of the play, El Guindi has the conflict implode on itself, misdirects us in the ensuing scenes, then delivers an earth-shattering smack down by the conclusion.  We don’t see any of it coming. This is playwrighting, directing and acting at its best, and one cannot leave the theater after seeing Threesome, without being viscerally impacted, challenged and provoked.

The dialogue is witty, incipient, and current. El Guindi pierces our understanding of notions of female and male cultural body objectifications, the meaning of male and female nudity, gender roles, assumptions about male and female sexuality, sexual politics, and the meaning of sexual violence. Then he uses the tropes associated with each to heighten the themes until finally all come into focus by the end of the play.

Alia Attallah, Quinn Franzen, 'THREESOME,' 59E59th Theaters
L to R: Alia Attallah and Quinn Franzen in ‘Threesome,’ part of the 5A Season at 59E59th Theaters. Photo by Hunter Canning.

Initially, the concept of the objectification of the naked human body is humorously spun out when the third member of the trio enters the bedroom stark naked and ready for action. Doug (Quinn Franzen portrays him with ingenious stealth, candor, and unabashedly, annoying eagerness), who knows Leila and Rashid from another situation and has willingly negotiated this rousing evening at their request, is initially upbeat and playful. Doug’s attitude belies his issues, his contradictory impulses, and his ulterior motives. Franzen’s Doug evokes these brilliantly.

Act One breezes us down the path as a fantastic romp amongst these three, until El Guindi spirals to the next level of male-female tropes. He dissects each of the characters’ reasons for agreeing to be sexually intimate with the other two. Then downward on the roller coaster ride the playwright plunges his characters. He probes their darker motives and hints at extraordinary undercurrents. With the next set of dialogue and thematic developments, El Guindi reveals vital social issues related to culture, situation, the work place, and social and individual power structures. Meanwhile, the “threesome” has evolved from its seemingly “harmless” sexual intent into a revolving matrix of intellectual power games, emotionally guilt-laden defenses, and Machiavellian manipulations. As we try to divine who is “having” whom, we begin to realize that the encounter is not physical/sexual. The “threesome” is mental, psychological, and perhaps spiritual. And the encounter is beginning.

Where Act One set out an apparently funny exposition that, in actually, was filled with Kafkaesque fog, shadow, and opacity and nothing was what it appeared to be, Act Two is a dark, tortured reality; inarticulate uncertainty is the predominant theme. The dominant individuals in Act One become the dominated in Act Two.

Karan Oberoi, Alia Attallah, Quinn Franzen, 'THREESOME,' 59E59th Theaters
L to R: Karan Oberoi, Alia Attallah, Quin Franzen in ‘Threesome,’ part of 5A Season at 59E59th Theaters. Photo by Hunter Canning.

In Act Two Leila is at a photo shoot conducted not by Rashid, but by Doug, who is the photographer assigned to do the cover photography for Leila’s book. Doug has set up a magnificent fantasy “knock off” of a Middle Eastern styled boudoir with elaborate carpets, red pillows, and a hookah down front. It is the replica of the bedroom of Act I with the focal point on the bed/sleeping area center stage; in Act II it is decorated to represent “Arab” culture, in terminology that Doug would use. Both bedroom (Act I), and boudoir (Act II), are revealed to be, despite cultural differences, the same. The playwright and director leave the interpretation up to us; however, the implication is ripe.

Leila criticizes Doug and the publisher for coming up with this ridiculous and demeaning Hollywoodish metaphor. She implies that the West associates such tripe with the Middle East because it evokes sensual romanticism and exoticism. However, it is sans the horrific gender oppression and abuse. Leila is quick to point out that there is little of this Western association that is real or actual in the Middle East; the decor is used to “please” the West and tourists. Doug maintains the set and continues with the planned motif of the shoot and Leila’s garb.

As the playwright pinpoints the cultural misunderstandings between West and East along with the gender miscalculations and differences, Leila begins to reveal why she has written her book. Doug reveals an experience he had with “an Arab” woman when he was in the Middle East. El Guindi uses both stories to highlight the themes of sexual violence, cultural misunderstanding, gender oppression, and abuse.

When Rashid shows up uninvited to confront Leila about her deceptions, we are shocked. The war between the sexes and in “the threesome” is raging, as Rashid confronts Doug about his manipulation to get the photography job over him. What is forbidden and painful for each of the characters manifests. As the arguments boil over, each reveals their truths with the exception of Leila who El Guindi has Rashid pry out of her by tortuous degrees.

Alia Attallah, 'THREESOME,' 59E59th Theaters, Yussef El Guindi, Chris Coleman
Alia Attallah in ‘Threesome,’ part of 5A Season at 59E59th Theaters. Photo by Hunter Canning.

At the play’s fateful conclusion we profoundly understand the characters’ weaknesses. We see that regardless of how much they have attempted to fragment their view of themselves to gain strength and achieve self-clarity, each has failed, greatly hindered by the corrupted mores of the cultures of both the West and East. Their weaknesses and emotionalism have overcome them and they find it impossible not to add to the spiritual and psychological harm that has been done to them.

El Guindi’s irony is manifest: their collective need to be a “threesome” engineered the explosion that set them reeling into themselves and at war with each other. It is a further irony that it was impossible for them to just objectify each other to have sex. They could not separate who they were and are from what they do and perform, unlike what popular culture (literature and film) promotes is something easy to do. El Guindi suggests perhaps it is not.

Like much of life, Rashid’s, Leila’s, and Doug’s revelations have no immediate outcomes toward hope. El Guindi’s adept characterizations indicate that there can be no neatly tied up resolution and new direction for these individuals who are profoundly wounded and who can only wound those closest to them. This is especially true for Leila and Rashid. Actors Oberoi and Attallah shine at conveying this truth. Though they may try to make their way to wholeness, Leila and Rashid must go the long journey through their own pain and they must go alone to find “some way out of there.”

The conclusion is particularly dramatic. And much credit goes to the director,  and actors Attallah and Franzen, who create the powerful scene which echoes the main theme of overt gender violence. You will just have to see the play, experience the suspense, and understand the profound revelations about gender and sex and power for yourself to appreciate how the play resonates for us today. Certainly, it is a play for all seasons and all cultures.

This thought provoking and compelling production will be at 59E59th Theaters through August 23rd.

THREESOME
written by Yussef El Guindi, directed by Chris Coleman
Produced by Portland Center Stage and A Contemporary Theatre (ACT)
Part of the 5A Season at 59E59 Theaters
Saturday, July 11 – Sunday, August 23
Opening Night: Wednesday, July 22 at 7 PM
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About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, novelist and poet. She authors three blogs: The Fat and the Skinny, All Along the NYC Skyline, A Christian Apologists' Sonnets. She contributed articles for Technorati on various trending topics. She guest writes for other blogs. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely.

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