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A CurtainUp Review
Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran

By Carolyn Balducci

Monsieur Ibrahim had always been old... He never moved, like a branch grafted onto his stool.
In his touching, wry and bittersweet solo-performance, Ed Vassallo holds the audience in the bone-dry palm of a relaxed hand as he skillfully narrates the bittersweet events in the life of his character, Moishe. The laid-back, off-handedness of Vassallo's interpretation fits the self-effacing goofus he plays.

Like a Ferris Bueller or a Holden Caufield, Moishe is a sympathetic teenager dealing with much more than mere teenage hormones.  Moishe's mother ran off. His chronically depressed and miserly father is physically present but emotionally AWOL.

Luckily, in Moishe's Jewish neighborhood on the Rue Bleu, there is the grocer, Monsieur Ibrahim, erroneously dubbed "the Arab." He observes the street with an open eye. He declares "I am not an Arab... Arab means open at night and on Sundays. I am a Muslim. . .I know what is in my Koran.""

To pay hookers for his first sexual encounters, "Momo" -- M. Ibrahim calls him Moishe -- shaves a few francs off his food allowance by stealing cans from the grocery. The shoplifting does not go unnoticed, but Ibrahim, a Sufi, patiently lets him continue. A purchase by 'sixties film star Brigitte Bardot during a location shoot enables Ibrahim to make up the loss.

Told from Moishe's point of view, the unfolding narration presents many characters and situations and and reveals the growing bonds of affection between the old man and the boy.

Eventually, following the disappearance and death of Moishe's father, M. Ibrahim adopts "Momo" and they set off on a fateful journey to Turkey. As Moishe turns into Momo, his transformation includes his gradual ability to accept the past without returning to it.

The resolution of Moishe's problems do not come out of action of his own, however, and though believable, this passivity makes the outcome of the play seem more like fictional narrative than drama; nevertheless, it is a stellar performance and a play well worth seeing.

Vassallo's stage presence is enormous and fills the theater. His relaxed and seemingly spontaneous narrative includes shifts in body language and expression that expand the parameters of his solo performance into several personae. His embodiment of the main character is particularly challenging since the character of the young Moishe/Momo transforms himself from a shlimazel into a mentsh before our eyes.

The lighting and simple stage -- a gleaming blue tile floor and a table set with a coffee pot and a few other items -- intensify the audience's focus on the actor. The discrete music and sound effects helped establish transitions.

The language of the text is rich in metaphor, and so well articulated that vivid images converge into a cinematic odyssey. Stephane Laporte's English text seems fluid and natural, but if there is a short-coming in this imaginative and verbally fluid production, it is that many of the profanities sound incongruously East Coast.

Eric-Emmanuel Shmitt is a distinguished French playwright. His plays performed around the world to critical acclaim include Le Visiteur, Variations Enigmatiques, Le Libertin, Milarepa and Frederick ou le Boulevard du Crime He is also a novelist and writer of operas, screenplays and dramatic works for television.

Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs du Coran was well-received in France, Zurich and Germany. It is wonderful that Play Company brought it o New York so soon after its very recent run in Paris at the Studio des Champs-Elysees starring Bruno Abraham-Kremer.

Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran
Written by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt English text is by Stéphane Laporte
Directed by Maria Mileaf
Starring Ed Vassallo
r>Set Design:Neil Patel
Costume Design:Katherine Roth
Lighting Design Lenore Doxsee
Sound/Original Music: Rob Kaplowitz
Running time: 1 hr 15 minutes (no intermission)
McGinn/Cazale Theatre 2162 Broadway (at 76th Street above the Promenade) 212/ 206-1515
Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00 PM, with matinees Saturdays at 2pm and Sundays at 3pm Tickets $15 Reviewed by based January 23rd press preview
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