Reviewed by Myron Meisel
South Coast Repertory
Through Nov. 16
Set entirely in the confines of the office of the British Consul in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, during the first day of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, Zealot, by the well-established and prolific Theresa Rebeck (Seminar, Mauritius, Bad Dates, Spike Heels), cannot avoid being a presumptuous play, satirizing and exposing obtuse Western perceptions that fig-leaf heedless and narrow interests while inevitably giving way to indulging in ironic Near East Orientalisms of its own.
Of course, being intelligent, facile and aware, Rebeck remains ever conscious of this contradiction, and toys with it, with considerable relish and verve. Even so, as a play of ideas, Zealot proves far more adept at creating intriguing situations and milking them for effect than at providing penetrating analysis, a deficiency that only accelerates as this very brief (80 minutes excluding the padding of an intermission) exercise ultimately wears itself out.
An American Assistant Undersecretary of State, Ann (Charlayne Woodard), black and Muslim — not incidentally — has surreptitiously intruded on the sanctum of Counsel Edgar (Alan Smyth) prior to his workday arrival after an apparently hard night partying. They diplomatically spar, each deftly wary of disclosing any revealing information, until they are interrupted by news that a group of protesting women have removed their hijab during prayer at the Grand Mosque, inciting a rioting mob of murder and mayhem.
Peremptorily, a surviving witness and appointed spokeswoman, a deferentially humble yet steely on-message young woman named Marina (Nikki Massoud), arrives seeking asylum from the U.S. government, which is allowed no official presence in the Holy City, yet fortuitously has its own woman conveniently present for this dicey situation.
The quandaries of political, legal and moral issues are delineated within the gestures of farce, though with an acrid and despairing edge. Rebeck can skillfully mine laughs while tightening the stakes, until she has constructed an inescapable conundrum where resolution of “the problem” may be possible, but clarity of vision cannot be.
While this is part of her point, the arguments eventually grow sterile, particularly when Ann, having executed the waffling will of her higher-ups, endeavors to occupy ethical high ground with increasingly accusatory exhortations that her practical, yet not insensitive, colleague rise to the occasion to act with greater principle than she has mustered herself. Her urgent air of superiority rings more hollow than the playwright, or the quality of her points, would have us believe.
Yet quite beyond its preoccupation with hot-button geopolitical issues, Zealot somewhat incidentally also captures one of the most dismaying components of our modern moral bankruptcy, the dominance of hierarchies commanded by clueless decision-makers who hide behind their ignorance of facts on the ground, and who are above all vested in their reflexive prerogative to say “no.” Furthermore, they privilege their refuge behind this risk-aversion.
Rebeck shrewdly weaves this social insight into her contemplation of gender roles, realizing that the persecution of women is the foundation of male, and implicitly, imperialist aggrandizement. Zealot challenges unquestioned obedience of all stripes, and it illustrates incisively that while everyone understands why people must be employees, no one can fathom why anyone would endure the attendant demeaning compromises.
Before it irretrievably runs aground, Zealot manages to be both entertaining and provocative in this savvily mounted production. The able cast may not yet have had optimum polish, but the interpretations are slick and persuasive in the moment, if not cumulatively.
Director Marc Masterson has wisely kept everyone at breakneck delivery, the pace required to be fast enough to power the maelstrom of dialogue past innate implausibilities. Newcomer Massoud rather astoundingly manages to incarnate a modern (and therefore devious) variant on Franz Werfel’s (and Jennifer Jones’s) Bernadette, a feat daringly required by Rebeck’s text, which tends to backslide into schematic oppositions.
Rebeck has certainly sustained herself as one of our most incisive fashioners and examiners of contemporary contradictions and behavioral cross-purposes, and she certainly can command a scene. This is a serious play, for all its reliance on humor, and while she may traffic knowingly in stereotypes, realizing that they can often indicate soupcons of truth, she here hasn’t mustered the intellectual heft to advance the discussion of substantial issues beyond the conscientious exposition of highly relevant themes. She laudably does not truck with moral certainties, but her play has to live muddled in the confusions that remain.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; Tues.-sun., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; through Nov. 16. (714) 708-5555, www.scr.org.