TORONTO — You really want to like House of Many Tongues. Running at Tarragon Theatre until June 3, Jonathan Garfinkel’s latest play features some sweeping themes and charismatic characters, and the dialogue rolls off the stage naturally.
An Arab and an Israeli battle over a Jerusalem house in House of Many Tongues. [Cylla von Tiedemann photo]
But the second act is marred by too many flaws to make it the five-star play it could potentially become.
House is a Middle East story pitting an Israeli man against an Arab man, both laying claim to a Jerusalem house. They squabble and point fingers, sometimes guns, and they each make a case for residing in this residence. But the house – itself a character (Fiona Highet) – is indecisive on who the rightful owner should be. The compromise between Abu Dalo (Hrant Alianak) and Shimon (Howard Jerome) acts as the meat of the play, while another more subversive plot begins to hatch.
Shimon’s 15-year-old son, Alex, wants to bring peace to the Middle East, through an unusual method. Calling himself the “test-tube baby of the Dalai Lama and Woody Allen,” Alex (Daniel Karasik) breezily believes oral sex exchanged between Israelis and Palestinians could broker the kind of accord the government only dreams about.
Alex’s manifesto serves as the humorous counterpoint to the darker tension brooding between the adults. And by the end of the first act, you truly begin to care for Alex, his father and the poetic Arab banging away at a typewriter in the kitchen.
If only the threads of House didn’t come loose in the second half. First, there’s a “camel” character played by Raoul Bhaneja of Train 48 fame. There’s nothing insightful or even entertaining about this role; the more snarky lines the camel spews, the more irritating he becomes.
Garfinkel – who also wrote The Trials of John Demjanjuk – throws in another adolescent for Alex to play with. Abu Dalo’s gothed-out daughter feels like a jarring addition, as if the playwright desperately needs a subject for Alex’s sexual experiments. She fails to be as punchy as she should be, and instead that heft is carried by Alex. Kudos to the 21-year-old Karasik for his excellent portrayal of a boy masking his pain with a flippancy every parent would recognize. He saves the brief exchanges between the two innocent teens.
Even though House doesn’t live up to its early promise, fans of snappy dialogue and Jewish humour will find some shining moments in the two-hour production. All actors bring more to the stage than just Garfinkel’s text, and Richard Rose’s direction fleshes out personalities through touching gestures or swift glances. Best of all, Highet playing the house, offers some creative uses of opening and closing a front door.
You can’t help but wonder what House could have been with some tighter editing and a punchier ending. The clunky inclusion of uninteresting characters weighs down this play, but luckily some stellar performances save it from crumbling completely. Alianak is mesmerizing as Abu Dalo, his face a map of emotions in almost every scene. Jerome delivers his woe-is-me lines with the comfort of an actor who’s experienced some Jewish pain. And Niki Landau doesn’t overdo her role as Alex’s cousin-seduction target.
House of Many Tongues runs until June 3 at Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, 30 Bridgeman Ave. For tickets, call 416-531-1827.