The Public Theater’s annual Under the Radar festival kicked off last night, and this year, it’s a uniquely international affair. Among its opening productions is Grey Rock, Amir Nizar Zuabi’s new play about a Palestinian man building a rocket ship inside his shed in the West Bank. It comes to us by way of Remote Theater Project, which brings artists who are “isolated geographically or politically” to the U.S. Though it is sometimes a lifeless piece, Grey Rock is enlivened by a thrilling lead performance from Khalifa Natour.
Natour stars as a widowed father who has begun selling off his few remaining assets and confining himself to his shed, concerning those around him. Most concerned is his daughter, played by Fidaa Zaidan. Preparing to marry her safe if status-obsessed fiancé, she confronts her father on his reckless behavior. But soon his insane plan to build a rocket and fly to the moon finds some unlikely converts – his daughter included.
Zuabi’s premise is wonderful. His dialogue is weaker, frequently falling into easy cliché and sanctimony. The play is strongest when Zuabi accepts the absurdity of his premise, and allows his characters a sense of humor about their mad mission. If the play as a whole acknowledged this mission as a sort of collective mania among its characters, it could have been a lot more fun. Instead it is a mostly solemn affair, with bursts of wonderful humor. Of course, the rocket is a metaphor for more grounded dreams – but it’s also inherently silly. One can build their metaphor but still have some fun along the way.
The play is also hampered by the decision to perform it in English. Much of the Palestinian cast is not up to this admittedly tremendous challenge. Zaidan in particular stumbled on many lines, weakening key monologues when she mixed up English words. Meanwhile the play’s two strongest performers, Natour and Motaz Malhees (who plays the town’s imam) deliver its most poignant interchange in their native tongue. In order to convince his imam into joining his crazy plan, Natour slips into Arabic to articulate his case. Even without translation, the resulting back-and-forth is the work’s most alive and passionate moment.
Zuabi does offer a strong payoff to his sometimes slow proceedings. Before embarking on his journey into space, Natour delivers a final monologue about the power of watching Neil Armstrong take his fateful first steps – and the small, imperceptible moment of deep intimacy he and his wife shared as they watched it happen. Grand themes of love and inspiration, otherwise given vague generality in Zuabi’s script, here take on a gorgeous specificity.
Elsewhere Natour has spun gold out of thin writing – but here, Zuabi gives him something meaty, and Natour’s incredible skill is evident. As his eyes shimmer at wondrous memories of a love now lost, he is totally electric. And a play which mostly only dreams of lift-off actually, for just a moment, shoots off into the stars.