Halfway through “Oh My Sweet Land,” the writer-director Amir Nizar Zuabi’s wrenching and shrewd solo show, you will begin to worry about the onions. You have heard them sizzle in the pan, seen the steam rise up, smelled the sweet-savory aroma. And then you should have forgotten those onions, because the unnamed woman frying them (a ferocious and radiant Nadine Malouf) is telling you a terrible story. The story is about a prisoner who knows he must leave Syria when a captain of the secret police brings the man’s daughter to the jail. The captain tickles her and plies her with chocolates, an oblique and sickening threat.
This story, like most of the narratives in Mr. Zuabi’s brief, site-specific drama, produced by the Play Company in volunteered kitchens throughout the metro area, is probably true, culled from Mr. Zuabi’s interviews with Syrian refugees in a camp in Amman, Jordan. Like the other tales nested in the play, it is written and performed with piercing economy. This man’s imprisonment matters so much more than a pan of onions. But you are sitting in a cream-colored Brooklyn kitchen and the stove is a lot closer to you than Syria. So it’s the onions that really trouble you. Because surely the steam has turned to smoke. Surely they are burning.
On its surface, “Oh My Sweet Land,” produced in London in 2014, is a forceful and absorbing play about a Syrian-American woman who goes searching for her married lover, Ashraf. It is more than that, too, but let’s stick with surfaces for a moment. Having fled Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Ashraf finds shelter for his wife and daughter in Lebanon, then resettles himself in America, where he meets the woman at a cafe in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. She invites him home to eat kibbe, Syrian meat croquettes. For three months he entangles himself in her sheets and her life while guilt gnaws away at him. “We make love because it’s the only way to comfort each other,” she says. “It’s the most normal thing we can do.” But one morning he is gone. So the woman boards a plan to Lebanon.
As she tells her own story, the woman prepares more kibbe. The bottles of oil lined against the backsplash, the dozens of lemons spilling out of baskets, suggest that she has been making this dish often and compulsively. The food is a doughy lifeline between her and her lover, between her and the country of her parents. It closes distance, fills loss. She barely looks at her hands as they knead bulgur, cube meat, but the stories she tells affect the way she holds the knife and pulses the food processor.
Cleverly, Mr. Zuabi has structured this cooking demonstration as a love story, an adventure, a mystery. We want to follow this woman as she goes in pursuit of Ashraf. Will she find him? Will she find him alive? What barriers will she face? What dangers? Ms. Malouf (“The Who & the What,” “Ultimate Beauty Bible”) is a rigorous and impassioned actress with liquid eyes and a way of moving from one character to the next with subtle delineation. You would be happy to tag along with her on far less eventful journeys. The embellishments that Mr. Zuabi and his designers add — shifting lighting, amplified cooking sounds — aren’t necessary. Ms. Malouf’s face, voice and gestures, coupled with Mr. Zuabi’s harrowing script, are involving enough.
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