In Yussef El Guindi’s latest at ACT Theatre, an adrift and too-convenient show is saved by an exceptional performance in its final moments. People of the Book runs through September 29.
Every year around the anniversary of September 11, someone’s commemoration of the victims of the terrorist attacks is accompanied by a fond remembrance of September 12. Among this year’s rosy utterances of nostalgia: Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s debate opening statement, in which he exulted over “the way it felt when for a moment, we came together as a country.”
This is mostly bullshit, as any Arab or Muslim person living in the United States at the time could tell you. These supposedly openhearted times certainly didn’t include them, and the groundswell of xenophobia in this country became an awfully potent factor in the wars we were about to begin outside of this country.
All of this was clearly on the mind of Yussef El Guindi when writing People of the Book, his newest play now receiving its world premiere in an ACT Theatre production directed by artistic director John Langs. As in his previous play Threesome, which also premiered at ACT, El Guindi stews together sexual intrigue and barely buried racial tension, underpinned by a set of overseas circumstances that might not be what they seem.
Husband and wife Amir (Wasim No’mani) and Lynn (Sydney Andrews) are artists — he’s a poet, she’s a sculptor — welcoming back their high school classmate from the Iraq War. Amir and Lynn, high school sweethearts, weren’t exactly friends with Jason (Quinlan Corbett) then, but they’ve reconnected now that he’s written a bestselling memoir about his dramatic war experiences and the Iraqi woman, Madeeha (Monika Jolly), he rescued and then married.
The allusion to Jason and Medea is clear (and a strong clue to the nature of the initially opaque Madeeha), but El Guindi’s play is less Greek mythology riff than elevated airport bookstand thriller. People of the Book really leans into its soapy elements, and there are several awfully convenient scenes when someone walks in at just the right moment to discover sexual betrayal or hear blurted secrets. It’s a curious mixture with El Guindi’s generally nuanced and thoughtful characterizations and his ideas about patriotism, commitment and art.
Amir, a man of Middle Eastern heritage who grew up in the U.S., has his suspicions about Jason’s book, both as a (markedly less successful) writer and as a person with complicated feelings about America and its inextricable empire-building. No’mani’s performance does a good job capturing these contradictions, with an outward joviality struggling to contain mounting frustration that he’s the only one in the room who recognizes what’s happening.
As Jason, Corbett also dons a mask — though it’s far less convincing. There’s not much recognizable humanity in his portrayal, which requires several dramatic whiplashes.
Andrews, saddled with a character who swings wildly from giggly ditz — a cringeworthy early scene has Lynn cooing over Jason’s biceps — to near-sociopath, gives an all-in performance, but the character seems to belong solely to the trashier half of El Guindi’s work.
People of the Book rarely feels like it fuses its disparate identities together, and Langs’ direction is similarly adrift, every scene operating on a different plane. This makes for a frustrating experience, but it also puts El Guindi’s standout moments on a pedestal.
That’s especially true for the final scene, where show MVP Jolly blows the fucking roof off in a lethally mesmerizing monologue that synthesizes El Guindi’s ideas about American imperialism, cultural divides and gender roles with his penchant for juicy drama in a perfect package. All my issues with the preceding 95 minutes melted away, and I came away eager to see where El Guindi goes next. (Jolly better be there.)
People of the Book runs through 9/29 at ACT Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets up to $47, available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; there is one single-stall, gender-neutral restroom on the second floor near the elevator (near the main upstairs restrooms closest to the Allen). Financial accessibility: discounted tickets are available, including pay-what-you-can tickets on Sunday nights; see info here. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Dusty Somers is a lifelong Seattleite whose love of the arts has resulted in a distressingly large physical media collection. Right about now, he’s probably watching a movie, seeing a play or listening to a record. He has covered theatre for City Arts, The Seattle Times, and NWTheatre.