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The Ambassador Theater’s mission might be an ideal one for D.C. theatermaking: A coterie of professionals—most affiliated with area universities—pool their resources, seek out embassy funding, and mount shows by international playwrights. It’s a roadmap to plays the State Department would love. But for its aim to succeed, Ambassador has to pick the right plays. And—how to say this diplomatically?—the four-year-old troupe will need stronger guidance and higher stakes than what’s on evidence in its current double bill.
Ambassador is advertising Trespassing as the American debut of two thematically similar one-act mysteries by the Egyptian playwright Alfred Farag. The first, “The Visitor,” is about a serial killer who preys upon an Egyptian actress, while the second, “The Peephole,” is about an Egyptian actor who hallucinates a murder scene.
Farag may have won Egypt’s National Playwriting Award in 1965, but that doesn’t mean these unsuspenseful thrillers are worth staging in the States. Spoiler alert: It will take audiences all of five minutes to realize that the policeman who knocks on the door of actress Negma Sadiq to warn her of a serial killer in the neighborhood is, in fact, the serial killer. The remaining 55 minutes are intended as a match of wits between the two characters, but Hanna Bondarewska’s Negma is entirely too dim and vain to elicit any empathy, and Ivan Zizek is gratingly telegraphic as the would-be killer.
“The Peephole” gets off to an (unintentionally) silly start. Zizek portrays Hasan Hasan, a Bruce Willis-esque action hero who returns home from a day of shooting only find a murdered extra in a bloody nightgown in his bedroom closet. As haunted-house music floods the theater, she wanders arms-out and staggers around like a cartoon zombie. An attorney, a psychiatrist, and a Mafia clean-up man quickly arrive on the scene.
This isn’t a farce—never mind the two giggly women in the front row at last Saturday’s matinee. The script is dead serious, and the play ends with the actor, doctor, and attorney each delivering monologues about the sins they’ve committed against Egyptian society.
All the players struggle to scale their performances to Flashpoint’s small space, which is about the size of large studio apartment. The strength of Trespassing, by far, is how well set designer Greg Jackson, also of Howard University, has arranged the black-box space and artfully appointed a pair of swank Egyptian apartments. (Cuban-American artist Agustin Blazquez contributed original artwork to the sets.) Several American University faculty and students are also involved in the Ambassador staging. They skipped a student production of Guys and Dolls for this. It’s been a good learning experience. Or so one has to hope.