Home / Arts & Life / The Kitchen Is Her Stage. (It Could Actually Be Your Kitchen.)

The Kitchen Is Her Stage. (It Could Actually Be Your Kitchen.)

So far 27 kitchens have been put at Mr. Zuabi and Ms. Malouf’s disposal, from Staten Island to Montclair, N.J. The smallest accommodates only 11 seats; the largest holds 40. Ticket buyers will find a neighborhood and cross streets listed for each performance, along with warnings like “third-floor walk-up” and “cat on premises”; the address will be released 24 hours before the show.

For now, Ms. Malouf was acclimating herself to her temporary rehearsal space, with its Pepto-pink floors and pale yellow walls. She and Mr. Zuabi had spent the morning cooking, then turned the props into lunch — verdant tabbouleh and earthy lentils — for the crew.

It was time for flesh. Thus far she’d made do with chicken breast, which is cheaper than the beef called for by the script. Today she had steak. “So much could go wrong,” she said with a grin, her dark hair waterfalling to one side as the kitchen island shook from her chopping.

Back in March, the casting notice for the show had requested an actress “confident with chopping onions and mincemeat,” noting that “the cooking should look fun and easy.” At this particular moment, however, Mr. Zuabi wasn’t looking for fun. “Put the emotional energy into the knife,” he said.

Mr. Zuabi, a Palestinian, grew up in the predominantly Arab city of Nazareth in Israel and now lives in Haifa. His extended family (“more like a tribe”) is divided among Syria, Jordan and Israel. In 2013 he traveled to a refugee camp in Irbid, Jordan, with the actress Corinne Jaber, who would go on to originate the role in “Oh My Sweet Land.” One day a man walked in to the tent where they were conducting research interviews, wearing a blue button-down shirt “like the one I’m wearing now,” Mr. Zuabi said. They looked at each other: “spitting image.” After a quick exchange of names, they learned that they were relatives. The man had escaped from Syria a month before. “I felt — ” Mr. Zuabi paused — “spared.”

After that trip, “I didn’t want to do something artsy,” he said. “It felt dishonest.” The refugee stories that Ms. Malouf’s character recounts over the slap of meat on the counter and the food processor’s guttural whine have the urgency of reportage. Moments of black comedy creep in: A journalist fakes his death as a cover for fleeing the country, then is saddened by the low turnout at his funeral; an outspoken actor, beaten to a pulp by the Mukhabarat (the Syrian secret police), bonds with his interrogator over a shared love of fine leather shoes.

Other stories are unbearably intimate. One girl shows Ms. Malouf’s character her scarred-over head wounds, saying there are worms sealed inside; a widow holds up a photograph of her husband, who was “killed twice” — first stabbed, then revived by doctors, only to have his oxygen tube slashed in a raid on the hospital. Misery “hits you from all directions,” Mr. Zuabi said of his time at the refugee camp in Jordan.

“I don’t have solutions,” Mr. Zuabi said. “And I’m not vain enough — or stupid enough — to think this is going to change anything on the ground in Syria.”

He knew that cooking would frame the monologue. “Maybe the biggest value in the Arab world is generosity, manifested by you feeding others,” he said. “It’s old desert code: Feed your guests.” (Ms. Malouf, whose parents are of Syrian, Lebanese, Greek, Italian and French heritage, concurred. “My family talks about what we’re having for dinner when we’re having breakfast,” she said. “You’re upset? Let me feed you. You’re happy? Let’s eat.”) He chose kibbe because it requires skill and patience, and is a dish universal to the Middle East: “Every village has its own recipe.”

Mr. Zuabi hazards that Ms. Malouf will be able to complete only five or 10 kibbe at most — if they don’t “combust,” per her dire prediction. Still, he insisted that the kibbe must be edible. “We’re not going to cheat,” he said. Ms. Malouf went further: The kibbe must be delicious, she said. “My ethnic pride will not allow me to mess up.”

Before rehearsals started, she enlisted her mother, who grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, to help her practice making kibbe. Their family recipe involves layering the ingredients in a baking dish and shoving it in the oven, so neither of them knew how to roll the meat-and-bulgur paste into balls, as instructed by the script. It was not a success. The kibbe “all burst,” she said.

In the church basement, sunlight slanting through a stained-glass window, she patted the paste around her thumb. “Too thick?” she asked Mr. Zuabi. His brow furrowed. “Too grainy,” he said; the bulgur was the wrong grade, coarse not fine. They were also missing pine nuts, marjoram and, crucially, sumac. An intern was dispatched to find the Middle Eastern spice somewhere in the historically Polish neighborhood.


The central element of the play is the kibbe — a Middle Eastern croquette — that Ms. Malouf’s character makes. Here, the meat, bulgur paste and spices for the recipe.

Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

For the last hour of rehearsal, Ms. Malouf and Mr. Zuabi stood quietly across from each other, chopping. She balanced the heel of one hand on the back of her knife, rocking it back and forth so it made a threatening thunk. He curled his fingertips under, so the blade could only brush up against his knuckles. “I need to work on my knife skills,” she said.

“Is it against union laws to make her cut onions for 36 hours straight?” Mr. Zuabi quipped.

But when it was his turn with the onions, his eyes filled with tears. Ms. Malouf shrugged. “I’m immune,” she said.

Continue reading the main story

About admin

Check Also

Hear the Best Albums and Songs of 2023

Dear listeners, In the spirit of holiday excess and end-of-the-year summation, we’re about to make …