Layalina written by Martin Yousif Zebari and directed by Sivan Battat, is a family saga two act play. The first act takes place in 2003 in Iraq, and the second act takes place just before the start of Covid in Skokie in 2020.
I loved the second act and thought it was the true heart and soul of the production. The second act was so alive, lively, current and tons better than the first act. The actors looked so much more comfortable , so much more committed and comfortable with their characters, and did a better job connecting with each other, listening to each other, being affected by each other as they really ripped into playing their modern, non-binary, queer, straight, and closeted characters. The script improved, funnier too, and really made the opening night audience laugh in discovery, and recognition.
I felt watching this production that the second act is really the play’s first act and that the true second act has yet to be written. I wanted to know more about the characters, their lives, together and apart and how they dealt with the Covid era and beyond. The play’s second act ends on a joke with two of the actors breaking the 4th wall as they deliver their last two lines. It felt a bit odd and a soft way to end the whole show, but if it was the end of the first act, I thought it would have worked better.
By and large, the director seems to let the actors play and the second act is so strong. It’s great to see how two generations deal with culture, families, gender roles, politics, privilege, protests, and finding their authentic selves in current America.
Alas, for me, the first act wasn’t that enticing. The acting was stilted and the actors appeared unconnected, uninvested, playing two note characters, and there was not a lot of eye contact and the actors kept space from each other. During some physical contact, as if the actors felt uncomfortable. The set, which looks great, only gives the actors 4 or 5 playing areas and none of them very big areas, so the staging by the director in the first act looks very conventional. The two wigs look like wigs. The music breaks in the first act felt repetitive. The play’s action in the first act could have easily been summed up in a 5-10 prelude of some kind (lots of way to do it theatrically) giving us the information we need to know before the start of the first act (which in this production is now the second act). The first act ends with the death of one of the characters at a protest, but the staging of it didn’t work for me. The intention to stage it on the family’s big dinner table lit only by a red light, might have been to metaphorically show that even families with wealth and stature can’t be protected against repressive regimes, which is a valid point, but to me it would have been more effective if they turned over the table and chairs and transform them into barricades for the characters to fight and die on.
It’s heartening to see a show by SWANASA theatre artists on an institutional stage like Goodman Theatre, and the show is very worth seeing for the second act.
Actors: Waseem Alzer; Atra Asdou; Ali Louis Bourzgui, Mattico David, Becca Khalil. Asst Director/Intimacy Facilitator: Gloria Imseih Petrelli. Dramaturgs: Jonathan L. Green, Yasmin Zadria Mikhaiel. Stage Manager: Abigail Medrano. Set Design: Casaboyce. Light Design: Jason Lynch. Sound Designers: Eric Backus, Ronnie Malley. Costume Designer: Dina El-Aziz.
Layalina at The Goodman Theatre’s Owen Theatre, 170 N Dearborn St, in Chicago's Loop is playing until April 2, 2023. for Tickets and information go to https://www.goodmantheatre.org/show/layalina-2/
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