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A CurtainUp Review
Dov and Ali
By Elyse Sommer
The 29-year old playwright has freshened up the familiar dilemma of young people raised in deeply religious environments as to whether to adhere to or rebel against strict orthodoxy by examining it through the parallel stories of a young Jewish teacher and his Muslim student at a Detroit high school. Dov (Adam Green), the son of an orthodox rabbi, has chosen to lead a freer, less tradition bound life which includes Sonya (Heidi Armbruster) his non-Jewish girlfriend. That freedom has been a mixed blessing. He loves being with Sonya but fear of his powerful father's disapproval has caused him to lead a double life, unable to commit himself to marrying her or even telling his parents about her. On the other hand Ali (Utkarsh Ambudkar), a precociously smart student in his literature class has chosen to follow the path of unquestioning acceptance of his equally powerful father's strict Muslim beliefs.
Ali, upset by the classroom discussions of William Golding's 1954 allegorical novel Lord of the Flies pursues Dov after class. These private meetings turn into an uneasy confrontational relationship, with Dov only vaguely aware that Ali's hostility is a veiled cry for help. Though Ms. Ziegler doesn't avoid stumbling into debate mode, the way she allows the surface discussion about Golding's characters to reveal the two young men's personal problems in relation to their backgrounds and within the larger scope of modern global struggles shows a promising talent at work.
Though Dov and Ali fits the genre of discussion play, this is no wordy Shavian treatise but a tightly constructed play, albeit one that never quite rises to its loftier ambitions and on more than one occasion asks the audience to suspend questioning the characters' actions too closely. Still Ziegler has imbued the discussion with warmth and impressive dramatic flair, especially in her use of Ali's sister Sameh (Anitha Gandhi) as both narrator and active participant.
Miss Ziegler is blessed in having her script given a simple yet handsomely realized production by a director (Katherine Kovner) with a solid grip on the mood and flow of the story, and four actors sensitive to the nuances of the individual and group dynamics. Scenic designer Steven C. Kemp has made wonderful use of the Cherry Lane's small stage. Some window shades rolled down a chalkboard handily transform Dov's classroom into his apartment, a few benches and a backdrop of cleverly draped sheer curtains work beautifully to convey a variety of scene shifts.
Adam Green is a fine fit as the teacher suffering from chronic indecisiveness. He was apparently unsure about the PhD he was working on when he met Sonya which made it easy to go into the teaching career that has brought both to the same Detroit high school. He's given up keeping kosher but still wears a yarmulke; more importantly, he's caught between his continuing need to please his father (especially so, at a time when the older man is apparently having difficulties dealing with his impending retirement) and Sonya's demand for a permanent commitment.
Heidi Armbruster is also well cast as the more sure of what she wants blonde shiksah, though one can't help wondering why she's put up with Dov's fence straddling for so long. Utkarsh Ambudkar is excellent as the cocksure doctrinaire Ali for whom life "isn't about being happy, it's about being right" — that is until he realizes how devastating doing the right thing can be. Anitha Gandhi ably handles her dual role as narrator and as Ali's sister Sameh who shares her brother's religious fervor but is seduced into a little rule bending in the interest of love with a more modern Muslim boy.
Dov's decision about handling both his career and his relationship with Sonya and Ali's actions when he sees his sister kissing her young man prove that pain and guilt can result whichever belief system you go with. Ultimately Dov and Ali's Detroit-based point-counterpoint situation never really connects in a deeply meaningful way to more universal political conflicts — except that both defy satisfyingly tidy endings.
Despite having a limited run in a theater with less than a hundred seats, Dov and Ali is likely to have an active life in regional theaters. In fact, even as it's playing in Greenwich Village, The Chester Theater in Massachussets is mounting a production to launch its summer season. (See Curtainup's Chester Theater Program for summer '09.