The dessert scene, where things tend to blow up, is where things blow up in The Profane, Zayd Dohrn’s cloyingly earnest play now running in a production at Playwrights Horizons. The after-dinner blow-up is certainly not the first trope that this version of the American kitchen sink drama, directed by Kip Fagan, adheres to. And yet, despite there being only ten minutes left of the play, it’s somehow not the last.
The plot is fairly simple: Emina has brought her handsome college boyfriend, Sam, home to her open-minded Muslim-American family’s book-lined Greenwich Village flat for the holiday weekend. We are repeatedly reminded that Emina couldn’t have chosen a worse boyfriend to introduce to the family, because Emina’s family is not like Sam’s family: Emina’s family is better, because Emina’s family is liberal and forward-thinking because they understand that women can have jobs and lives of their own! Sam’s family is conservative and thinks…differently…of women! We know that Raif, Emina’s liberal father and a professor and author, thinks Emina’s family is better because we are told several times. He’s yet to meet Sam’s family, so talk about judging a book by the cover! Sam and Emina announce their engagement. But Sam has secrets! This is an American play! Everyone has secrets! The play’s second act, which takes place in White Plains, indicated by the presence of shrubs outside the wide picture window upstage of the couch, invokes the plot of Meet the Parents, if that film were about families from undefined Muslim branches whose politics don’t align with one another. The play’s final twist, served between dessert and coffee, is diluted by a final scene that focuses on Raif and his inability to accept a circumstance that exists outside of his insular worldview defined by the walls of his apartment, which reveals that maybe he’s not so liberal after all.
The actors do what they can with an uneven script that relies on pandering to the upper-class white Playwrights Horizons audience, using tropes and a checklist of platitudes (“Girls are so much easier than boys!” “People turn into their parents!”). As the good girl daughter Emina and her boyfriend Sam, Tala Ashe and Babak Tafti are sweet and convincing in their love for one another. Francie Benhamou, as Emina’s older sister who still hasn’t moved out of the house, is appropriately crude and hilarious, and a real treat to watch. Lanna Joffrey and Heather Raffo, as Sam and Emina’s mothers, are warm and welcoming. As Raif, Ali Reza Farahnakian projects his character’s left-wing politics with such a heavy hand that it almost erases the play of its subtext. And, as Sam’s father, who regrettably doesn’t appear until Act II, Ramsey Faragallah is boisterous and lovable, not at all what the audience or Raif expects.
The design elements are beautiful. Matt Frey’s lighting, particularly during the ethereal transitions, transports us downtown to Greenwich Village with its ambient light from the streets of New York bleeding into the homey apartment and uptown to White Plains with warm spring sunlight streaming in from the backyard. Jessica Pabst’s costumes are wonderful, and immediately tell us who these characters are. Playwrights Horizons loves a mechanized set, and this is no exception: Takeshi Kata’s dual-household set is so over the top that it becomes a distraction in the second act when we return to the Village for the brief coda. Brandon Wolcott’s sound design between scenes seems to be striving for a certain otherworldliness, but the play’s text undeniably is set in downstate New York, and therefore feels uncomfortably jarring.
This is a play about two Muslim American families – one liberal, one conservative – at odds with one another via the betrothal of two of their children. But because the play never specifies where exactly these Muslim families find the origins of their conflict, the play lies in an uncomfortable plane of existence that some will find profoundly universal and that others will find straight-up grating. Those in the former will likely find themselves saddened that the secrets that come out after dinner signal the evening is drawing to a close. Others, by the time dessert arrives, will have had quite enough.