(Review by Tulis McCall)
This is a play that is paved with good intentions, but good intentions are not enough to nourish a hungry audience.
This is the story of a Palestinian family living in Bethlehem on the West Bank and dealing with a fairly unpleasant quality of life as an unwanted group of people. Fadwa Faranesh (Lameece Isaaq) is the young matriarch of the group, in command of the kitchen and not much else. In spite of the political chaos and uncertain living conditions she insists on trying to cling to her heritage through her food. In this instance she is preparing the food for the wedding of her sister Dalal (Maha Chehlaoui) to Emir (Arian Moayed). She is also keeping an eye on her father Baba (Laith Nakli) who is failing physically as well as living with Alzheimer’s. Her old boyfriend Youssif (Haaz Sleiman) is returning from New York for the wedding, and Fadwa hopes he will stay. Also returning is her cousin Hayat (Heather Raffo) who lives in New York as well as a successful chef. She is Youssif’s boss and new lover – shhhh because it’s a secret. To round out the group we have Aunt Samia (Kathryn Kates) who avoids thinking about her own reality by religiously following the TV hit Arab Idol.
After this, it is difficult to know where to begin because there is so much inconsistency in this piece that revolves around the food mentioned in the title, or should I say the “idea” of the food. To begin with, it is clear from the start that Isaaq is not a cook in any way. She is gracious and charming and handles food with all the familiarity of a bachelor handling a newborn. She does not grasp, she touches. She does not mix with her hands, she pats. She does not stir, she moves the spoon around. This is a fairly large oops.
On the first evening, when the family finally assembles to eat humus, salad and Hashweh (a rice and meat dish), they are at the table for all of five minutes, maybe not even that, before cousin Hayat arrives. When everyone resumes their places at the table, they eat with the gusto of hummingbirds and then replace the plates with an interactive map of THE WALL that actually puts the food to better use than the one for which it was intended.
The following morning when Youssif salivates over the mloukiyi – a simmered chopped leafy green with spices – Fadwa gives in and serves him a special bowl. He never touches the food. Later, when Fadwa is preparing Tabbouli, she has what looks like two cups of bulgur wheat that she dumps into a bowl holding at least four cups of parsley – making it parsley with bulgur and not Tabbouli salad.
There is great talk and great fuss about this food that no one takes the time to savor. You don’t savor food; you don’t savor life, they tell us, and then proceed to ignore what is on their plates. This is supposed to be the story of people clinging to their history and to one another. These are people demanding to survive in the face of some serious odds. Tradition and heritage are their roots, which are directly connected to their food. No food – no glue. No glue equals no story.
Because they don’t savor anything, these characters are bouncing from pillar to post with such fleet feet that we barely get a moment to register them. They speak in generalities except for the few swipes that Fadwa and Hayat take at one another over recipes that are a cover for their feelings for Youssif. Surprise. The only event that ever happens is a curfew during which the family is marooned with the wedding food in the freezer available for consumption. The thawed food is eaten with as much enthusiasm as the other food – very little.
Everything here is served at room temperature: the food, the politics and the fate of the patriarch. And what is surprising is to read the history of this show in the program. Food and Fadwa has been wandering the proverbial desert since 2004, and in all that time no one seems to have noticed that this text was a collection of ingredients looking in need of someone to turn it into a feast.
What this production needed and still needs is a Chef!
"Moves in fairly predictable strokes."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"Compelling new play. ...Spiced with comedy and leavened with drama."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Suffers from broad characterizations and limp sentimentality."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"The cooking-show device is funny the first time it’s used but gets repetitious quickly, and the playwrights employ it unimaginatively."
David Sheward for Back Stage
External links to full reviews from popular press...