In "The Cry of the Reed," Sinan Ünel has one engaging character, a few poetic images, and a timely, trend-spotting story that blends an Iraq hostage drama with a vague tour of Sufi Mysticism 101. Apparently, the Huntington Theatre Company, where Ünel was a playwriting fellow, considers this enough to warrant a world premiere.
But "Cry of the Reed" also has a handful of annoying and caricatured characters, a tendency toward glib and manipulative structure, and a persistent refusal to let anyone speak one line when four will do. Perhaps most discouraging of all, it is a play of ideas that desperately needs to get some better ideas.
I had actually been looking forward to a play that promised to wrestle with questions of faith and mystery in the context of a contemporary war story. Certainly the fanaticism of some Muslim fighters in Iraq makes this a reasonable line to pursue. Add in such intriguing threads as the ancient poetry of Rumi, the ecstatic trancelike dancing of whirling dervishes (or "semazen," as they're known in the play), and a conflicted journalist daughter who hasn't spoken to her deeply religious mother for years, and it sounded, however improbably, like my cup of transcendental tea.
Alas, no. The mother, Ayla, is indeed a fascinating character: a Turkish-born woman who married an American and had two children, lived in Somerville, then returned to Turkey alone after a tragedy and became a devout Sufi mystic. Ünel reportedly wrote this character for the noted Turkish actress Cigdem Onat, who plays the role here, and her performance is a rich and wonderful thing. At once worldly and pure, warm and remote, passionate and poised, Onat's Ayla is complicated and alluring.
Her appeal, however, comes more from the actress than from the grandiose yet banal lines she has to speak: "The fear of loss is like a sister to me," for example, or "You're a lover of life. That's the very foundation of faith." And, depressingly, her speeches, as faux-poetic and woolly as they can be, are more engaging than anything else that's spoken onstage.
The daughter, for example, is reduced to such cliches as "I'm a journalist. This is what I do." Or, later, when she and a male colleague have been kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents and are being held hostage, there's this exchange between them:
"You're really sexy," he tells her.
"You're losing your mind."
"I've never been more sane in my life."
On second thought, that may be true; a later scene finds him telling her, "When they slit my throat, I hope you're in the same room so I can smell you."
That speech unfolds into a whole aria on the deliciousness of female flesh, but I'll spare you. Darren Pettie delivers it with all the bluff finesse he can muster, and Lisa Birnbaum, as the journalist-daughter, reacts with an almost persuasive mix of revulsion and pity, but it's just no good. Suffice it to say, by the time an insurgent tells one character, "Now go before I shoot you," I was willing to offer myself up instead.
That sounds mean. But two hours and 40 minutes of this stuff will do that to a person - especially when it also features glaring lights, fake-out shock effects of gunfire and sudden darkness, and lame "comic relief" from a childlike manservant who's studying to be a dervish. And I don't believe I've even mentioned the whiny American boyfriend.
To that boyfriend, who turns up at Ayla's house in Turkey after the daughter takes off for Iraq, Ayla is actually required to say: "Don't you think it's strange the way we've been thrown together like this?"
Strange, indeed. So strange that you'd almost think you were in a play.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.