Review: Provocative Romance

By Robert Hurwitt
April 28, 2013

If love isn't the answer to all our problems, it creates some diverting and unexpectedly hopeful complications in Yussef El Guindi's "Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World." Given the weight of expectations it has to carry - everything from personal fulfillment to the cultural melting pot of the American dream - it's almost a miracle that love is still breathing at the end of the Center Rep local premiere that opened Saturday.

More than breathing, it seems very much alive. Smart, funny and thought-provoking, El Guindi's "Pilgrims" - winner of last year's prestigious Steinberg new American play award - blends the familiar tropes of cross-cultural romantic comedy and gritty working-class one-night stand (with glimmers of a maybe future) and adds enough piquant Islamic and other wrinkles to overcome a sometimes rocky production.

The performers keep the comedy and emotional-political undertow on track, particularly Rebecca Schweitzer and Gabriel Marin in the title roles. Marin's Musa is an Egyptian immigrant all-night cabbie in New York, torn between the old world and the new. Schweitzer's Sheri is the fare he brings home one night, an all-American blond late-shift waitress whose endlessly inspired fountain of impulsive nervous blather - about her history of bad boyfriends, sex and alcoholic mother has him as befuddled and aroused as the unmistakable electricity between them.

Language is an obvious stumbling block. Egyptian-born El Guindi, a naturalized American, writes fractured English as eloquent and multileveled as Sheri's expletive-rich arias of second thoughts and insecurities. Islam may be another barrier. More problems crop up when Musa's Somali best friend Tayyib (a masterfully smooth Carl Lumbly) warns him about the complex pull of cultural differences. More immediate ones arrive in the person of Gamila (Lena Hart), Musa's Egyptian American fiancee.

El Guindi develops the story in sharp, disconnected and overlapping scenes, with tantalizing ambiguities in the interstices and intriguing appearances by Musa's absent Sudanese roommate (Dorian Lockett), who's on his pilgrimage to Mecca. Center Rep Artistic Director Michael Butler keeps up an enticing flow of tension between and within the scenes, though some elements don't come up to his usual standards. The clumsy handling of offstage voices - Musa's ever-battling neighbors, Sheri's outraged boss - is especially off-putting.

Butler's set, however, an eclectic array of luggage (for walls, bed, cab etc.), underscores the subtext. Best known for his more politically overt plays, often seen with Golden Thread Productions ("Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes"), El Guindi folds rich reflections on the universal immigrant conundrum within his romantic comedy. The tension between the comfort of the old ways and the promise of the new adds provocative spice to his pilgrims' quest.


Review: 'Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World' a funny, provocative hit at Center Repertory Company

By Pat Craig
April 29, 2013

"Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World" is an elegant rom-com with fangs, a twist on the traditional gentle tale of immigrants coming to America to forge a new life and find love.

Aside from the first few minutes of the show, now playing at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center as part of Center Repertory Company's Off Center season, there are few "awwww" moments in the two-hour, decidedly 21st-century piece. But is does have its funny moments. Lots of them.

Musa (Gabriel Marin) is a recent Muslim immigrant from Egypt, driving a cab and living in a down-at-the-heels walkup apartment, experiencing the frontier spirit and late-night carnival that is life in a large, American city. It's loud, often underdressed and continuously surprising for the youngish immigrant who is diving into the city as if it were a rich and varied banquet.

And that's where Sheri (Rebecca Schweitzer) comes in. She's a night-shift waitress, slinging hash and coffee with a lusty joy she shares with her customers, including Musa, who brings her home one night to start what becomes a shaky relationship. They're crazy about each other, but neither can figure the other out because of cultural differences.

They move in together, despite the fact that Musa's pal Tayyib (Carl Lumbly), warns his buddy he'd be better off sticking with his Egyptian-American Muslim fiancée Gamila (Lena Hart), who is with Musa's parents in Egypt planning the wedding.

Naturally, Gamila returns to America and discovers Sheri fast asleep and alone in Musa's bed. She introduces herself as Musa's sister and begins to grill Sheri about the relationship.

Then Sheri gets her turn at 20 questions and learns Gamila is actually the fiancée, an American with her talons tucked into Musa. The feathers fly, not unlike your typical romantic comedy, aside from the clever dialogue and biting humor.

From there, however, the play takes a number of wild, funny and unusual turns, as the three characters get the opportunity to examine beliefs, their own and those of others.

Before long, nobody is particularly happy, the stakes of the romance have been raised, and Musa, who has been coasting along on his exotic charm and carefree personality, really has to come to grips with things. This is where "Pilgrims," a 2012 Steinberg Award winner for best new American play, ventures into new territory and covers some uncharted comic waters.

It is aided by the sheer ability of the cast, which brings its A-game to this buzzworthy comedy. Each cast member succeeds in constructing a delightful character, including Dorian Lockett (Abdallah), who brings a surreal sort of presence to the piece.

Director Michael Butler leads his cast in a journey through some poignant territory with his usual rocket-speed pace and precision. He also created the set, which is made almost entirely of luggage and works wonderfully.


A personal look at Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World

By Kedar K. Adour, MD
April 29, 2013

A personal look at PILGRIMS MUSA AND SHERI IN THE NEW WORLD playing on Center Rep’s Off Center stage.

Center Rep’s production of Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World under Michael Butler’s provocative staging/direction is well worth a trip to the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek. For this play Butler is the scenic designer as well as the director putting his very personal stamp on Yussef El Guindi’s very personal play that won the 2012 Steinberg Award as the best American play that had not been produced on Broadway. It is playing at the intimate 130 seat Off Center ‘black box’ theatre where the audience becomes drawn into the action.

For this reviewer, the play brought back very personal memories. Both my parents were immigrants to America from Greater Syria that was divided into Lebanon and Syria after World War II.  He met my mother, the youngest of three sisters, who ran a boarding house in Upstate New York in 1911 and eloped with her on his motorcycle. The fact that he was a Muslim, though non-practicing, and she was a Catholic was as great a dichotomy as that between non-practicing Muslim-Egyptian Musa and white American waitress Sheri who elope in his taxi cab.

Although I have given away the penultimate scene it will in no way detract from the convoluted love story that is infused with modern day, post 9/11, angst of assimilation of Arab immigrants into American culture. In one scene, a dream sequence, a secondary character Abdallah (Dorian Lockett), a Sudanese Muslim, gives thanks for the American opportunities for success that led to his financial independence. When I offered to take my successful truck farmer father, whose name was Abdul(lah), back for a visit to Syria, his response, in colorful Arabic, suggested I was crazy because he was now an American.

Back to the play. Although the ancillary cast of Lena Hart, Carl Lumbly and Dorian Lockett are fine actors, the evening belongs to Rebecca Schweitzer as Sheri and Gabriel Marin as Musa.  She is a ditzy chatter-box waitress who accepts an invitation to visit Musa’s walk-up apartment knowing full well that sex should be the ultimate end of the evening. Schweitzer is a whirl-wind of insecurity as she prattles on and on about her past experience with abusive boyfriends, an alcoholic mother and inner emotional turmoil.  Marin as a young Egyptian-American taxi driver with his own insecurities is the perfect foil for Schweitzer with his minimalist verbal responses and expressive facial movements to her inane chatter.

It is a love story with political-social implications that are woven adroitly, but not seamlessly into the text. Musa is torn between his potential marriage to his fiancée Gamila (Lena Hart) and a life of oppressive sameness stifling his desire for change. Gamila an intellectual woman thoroughly integrated into the American dream but is willing to accept the customs of Arab culture where elders plan the future of their children.

Carl Lumbly is superb as Somali Tayyib, Musa’s best friend who makes a living illegally selling luggage on the street. El Guindi has given Tayyib the words explaining the devastating effects of cultural differences of a match between Musa and Sheri that can only lead to disaster. He has personally experienced such a disaster. This fact is emphasized in a poignant last scene between Tayyib and Gamila.

You may not cheer when El Guindi’s pilgrims head off in his taxi to uncertain adventure but you will wish them best of luck because they are in love. Running time is just under two hours with an intermission.


Center REP's Pilgrims Musa and Sheri is an All-American Romance

By Sam Hurwitt
April 30, 2013

Center REPertory Company, the resident professional theater company at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center for the Arts, tends toward light entertainment in its main stage season. It just finished a run of a madcap theatrical adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps and will be finishing up the season with the musical Sweet Charity in May. But Center REP also offers up an alternative menu of quirkier fare in its Off Center season in the intimate Knight Stage 3, the smallest of the Lesher's three theaters.

The latest of these is the Bay Area premiere of Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World, a romantic comedy by Egyptian American playwright Yussef El Guindi, a former Bay Area resident who's had several of his plays produced in San Francisco by Golden Thread Productions (Language Rooms, Back of the Throat, Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes). Pilgrims premiered at A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle in 2011 and went on to win the 2012 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award.

Compared to his aforementioned darker comedies informed by the paranoia and civil rights abuses of the "War on Terror," Pilgrims Musa and Sheri is a relatively straightforward modern romantic comedy. Musa (a starry-eyed and eager-to-please Gabriel Marin) is a cab driver, a recent Egyptian-American immigrant who says he learned English from hardboiled detective novels but doesn't really talk like it. Sheri (Rebecca Schweitzer, electric with nervous energy) is a neurotic, Caucasian New York diner waitress with a nonstop stream of chatter about how she doesn't want Musa to think she's easy even though they're probably totally going to have sex.

When we first see them, he's invited her up his apartment for a drink at 2:00am, while giving her a ride home from her shift. Never mind that Muslims aren't supposed to drink; the last thing he wants to talk about is God, even though Sheri finds the subject fascinating. It seems like the perfect setup for a one-night stand, which is why she wants to make it clear she's not that kind of girl, though she goes back and forth on that score.

The budding romance is sweetly tentative and totally charming, with Sheri often hilariously oversharing about the seemingly countless past mistakes she doesn't want to repeat, and Musa regarding her with gentlemanly reserve and near-speechless wonder. Any culture clash between them is refreshingly not a big deal, more an object of enthusiastic interest than any sort of barrier. Musa's friend Tayyib, however, cautions him against getting too serious. "You cannot be a foreigner twice in this country," he warns, clarifying that it's important to be able to be able to be himself at home if he has to be a stranger out in the world. Tayyib is played by local stage and screen actor Carl Lumbly (Alias, Cagney and Lacey), with amiable and knowing charm. Interestingly, this is the second play in a row that casts Lumbly as Marin's mentor, after San Francisco Playhouse's The MF with the Hat in February.

One thing Musa declined to mention is that he's already engaged, to Gamila, a traditional, hijab-wearing Muslim woman who grew up in the United States (a strong, no-nonsense Lena Hart) and just happens to be away at the moment. Also traveling abroad but still a presence in the play is Musa's roommate Abdallah (an gentle, glowing Dorian Lockett), who is on a pilgrimage to Mecca but still shows up to give blissfully enthusiastic monologues about the wonders of the American melting pot.

Center REP artistic director Michael Butler gives the play a brisk and nuanced staging, and the cast really makes you feel for these characters, especially when Musa's worlds inevitably come crashing together. Butler also designed the clever set, with piles of luggage in lieu of furniture. (Tayyib is a luggage salesman, and there's much in the play about traveling, as the title indicates.) Lighting designer Ray Oppenheimer nicely captures the harsh lighting of Musa's cheap room and the mysterious green luminescence of wherever it is Abdallah's speaking from.

Despite some big speeches about assimilation, connection to your own culture, and reinventing yourself (one of which ties everything up at the end a little too glibly), it's ultimately a simple, touching love story about people's expectations of each other and themselves. And yes, also about the mystique of America as a place where identity is up for grabs. El Guindi's dialogue is funny and eloquent, as smart about the anxieties of flirtation as its is about righteous fury unleashed. In many ways it's an unromanticized love story of deeply flawed and possibly unsuitable people who have fallen hard for each other, but ultimately that's what's so romantic about it.


Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World both Provocative and Entertaining

By Jan Miller
May 3, 2013

Center REPertory Company’s latest production, “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World,” under the direction of Michael Butler, is well worth a visit to the intimate ‘Knights Stage 3’ Theatre at the Dean Lesher Center in Walnut Creek, Calif., where the audience gets up close and personal to the action.

Basically, “Pilgrims” is a love story with political and social implications. The dilemma, which this production raises is: Do you make a safe, sensible match or take a risk on an exciting someone who might be the one “great romance” of your life?

The set is as basic as can be… luggage, luggage, and more luggage. It’s simple, yet very effective.

In the storyline Musa (Gabriel Marin, who is superb in this part), an Egyptian immigrant all-night cab driver, and Sheri (Rebecca Schweitzer, who is equally terrific), a quirky, chatterbox Caucasian late shift waitress, negotiate the twists and turns of not only love, but cultural expectations.

When Musa, who’s been in America less than a year, falls for Sheri, who accepts his invitation to come up to his apartment, both their lives take unexpected and complicated turns.

Both realizing the potential pitfalls of where this relationship might lead, Sheri babbles incessantly about her past experience with abusive boyfriends, an alcoholic mother and all her emotional baggage. Musa has his own baggage, but seems to be the perfect counterpart for Sheri.

Language is one stumbling block to their budding relationship, and that leads to some comic moments. More problems crop up when Musa’s best pal Tayyib (Carl Lumbly) warns him about the cultural differences that such a relationship between the two could pose.

Enter Gamilia (Lena Hart), Musa’s fiancée, who unexpectedly arrives at Musa’s apartment after a visit to Egypt to see Musa’a parents to plan their wedding.

Gamila is an intellectual woman who has been integrated into the American way of life, but is willing to accept the traditional customs of Arab culture, where elders are already planning their wedding.

This is where things get really interesting, as upon entering the apartment Gamilia discovers Sheri fast asleep and alone in Musa’s bed. She introduces herself as Musa’s sister and begins to grill Sheri about the relationship.

Then Sheri counters with a bunch of questions of her own, only to learn who Gamila actually is. That’s when the feathers hit the fan, so to speak, and the stakes of the romantic triangle are raised.

Musa is forced to come to grips with this new predictament. The tension between staying with the comforts of “old ways” and the challenge of setting out in a new direction becomes the underlying theme that provides the real spice to this pilgrim’s quest.

"Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World," named winner of the 2012 Steinberg Award for Best New Play, will meet all your expectations of a superior Michael Butler production. It performs through May 12 at the Knight Stage 3 Theatre in the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, Calif. For tickets and more information please phone (925) 943-7469 or visit CenterREP.org


Curtain Calls: Two 'Pilgrims' show their quirks

By Sally Hogarty
May 8, 2013

If you haven't had a chance to see Center Rep's "Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World," there's still time. The funny, quirky show by Yussef El Guindi runs through May 12 at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center.

A part of the company's "Off Center" series, the show performs in the more intimate Knight Stage 3.

The romantic tale follows Egyptian taxi driver Musa and a slightly wacky American waitress Sheri as the unlikely duo begins a relationship. All the usual twists and turns of new love become even more exaggerated, given the cultural and religious differences, not to mention Musa's fiancé.

Director Michael Butler found a wonderful cast to bring out the best in El Guindi's lively characters. Gabriel Marin, who took over the role of Musa late in the rehearsal process, infuses the philandering Musa with such vulnerability and enthusiasm that he becomes one of the most likable characters in the story. Rebecca Schweitzer also skillfully transforms Sheri, whose insecurities and incessant talking can be a bit nerve-racking, into a more focused, loving mate. Lena Hart plays Musa's fiancé with a rich complexity, while TV/film star Carl Lumbly brings a charismatic wisdom to his Somalian character. Dorian Lockett as Musa's absent roommate adds an otherworldly warmth to the production.

Kudos to sound designer Lyle Barrere whose instrumental soundtracks add another level to the production and to Butler's creativity with suitcases!



Cultural Differences Make Provocative Romance

By Farah Jahan Siddiqui Bullar
May 23, 2013

Egyptian-American playwright, Yussef El Guindi explores the complexities of an intercultural romance in the Bay Area premier of Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World, winner of last year’s prestigious Steinberg Award for New Play from the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA).

A romantic comedy is a departure for the multi-award winning Guindi, who is better known for his deeply contemplative political works such as Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes, Language Rooms and When the Birds Flew In, which have been staged by the San Francisco-based theater company Golden Thread Productions.

El Guindi says that he “latches on to whatever my muse or unconscious coughs up” and was inspired to write this play after hearing a late-night conversation between two people who were walking up the stairs to their apartment.

he play centers around an Egyptian immigrant named Musa, (Gabriel Marin), who works as a cab driver in New York. One night while driving his cab, Musa meets Sheri (Rebecca Schweitzer), a late-night diner waitress and invites her to his apartment. As the two become acquainted, the differences in culture emerge quickly. No subject is off-limits for Sheri, a spunky, neurotic, but endearing character who babbles incessantly about her former lovers, mother’s drinking problem, and religion much to the amusement of the reserved Musa. Musa’s well-intentioned friend Tayyib (Carl Lumbly) advises him not to get involved with Sheri because of their cultural differences, but the relationship continues.

The plot takes an unexpected twist when Sheri discovers that Musa is hiding a big secret—he is actually engaged to marry a beautiful Egyptian-American woman named Gamila (Lena Hart), who visits unannounced and discovers Sheri living in Musa’s apartment. The animated encounter between the two women reaches a crescendo when Musa comes home and has to confront both of them.

El Guindi’s two-hour production glides along effortlessly, animated by snappy dialogue, solid acting performances and skillful direction from Michael Butler, Center Rep’s Artistic Director.

The entire play takes place in Musa’s dimly-lit apartment. Butler’s minimalist yet visually alluring set, composed entirely of suitcases in various shapes and sizes, effectively echoes the play’s theme. The baggage of tradition and culture that is inherent in any immigrant experience, as well as the emotional baggage we bring to our relationships, serves as the subtext for the play.

Actress Rebecca Schweitzer’s earnest performance as Sheri is a stand-out, but Gabriel Marin (Musa) deserves special recognition. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the actor who was originally slated to play Musa had to be re-cast two weeks before the play’s opening. Marin graciously stepped in as the replacement, delivering a seamless performance with only 50 hours of rehearsal time. Lena Hart is a dignified, but spirited Gamila, and Dorian Lockett adds an other-worldly quality to Abdullah, Musa’s Somali roommate.

Given the current political climate, Center Rep deserves applause for courageously staging a play with a lead Muslim character, not a common occurrence in mainstream American theatre companies, even in the progressive California Bay Area.

Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World unravels the struggle between longing and belonging with a rich tapestry of wit, charm and humanity. America may be quintessentially defined by its immigrant experience, but the desire for love and happiness transcends culture.