Brits' cluelessness brings levity to Palestinian tragedy

Brits' cluelessness brings levity to Palestinian tragedy

For a play about a brutal 1939 rebellion in British-occupied Palestine, Ismail Khalidi’s “Tennis in Nablus” is a remarkably funny play.

Blood is spilling on the streets. Families are fighting against each other. Prisoners are being tortured and hung. But about all the tennis-playing English invaders have on their minds is what they’ll wear to the next costume ball.

Winner of the 2009 Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition, this Alliance Theatre world premiere is a beautifully crafted work of art that balances the Lebanese-born playwright’s passion for the politics of his homeland with a playful and irreverent comedic sensibility.

Khalidi may be concerned with a tumultuous moment in Palestine’s history, but “Tennis in Nablus” is not a period piece; nor is it the least bit sentimental. Writing with an ear for contemporary language and a delightful sense of the absurd, Khalidi describes the Palestinians as dreamy revolutionaries and the British colonialists as comic buffoons.

While trouble-making Yusef (Demosthenes Chrysan) stirs a kettle of violence and unrest, picturing himself as an Arab version of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, his spirited and unconventional wife Ambara (Suehyla El-Attar) writes scathing polemical tracts under a masculine nom de plume. His Anglophile nephew Tariq (Bhavesh Patel) is understandably outraged that his own uncle has burned down his business.

As a kind of civil war rages within this household, British Gen. Falbour (Bart Hansard) and his sycophantic lieutenant (Joe Knezevich) jostle over sartorial decisions and tennis -- to hilarious effect -- and their soldier subordinates (played by Jim Sarbh and Michael Simpson) turn out to be sympathetic to the Palestinian prisoners. With a satirical gleam in his eye, Khalidi has a great good time sending up these “there’ll always be an England” shenanigans, even though the whole bumbling mess ends with a sobering tragedy.

Though the foreign accents are sometimes a little wobbly, director Peggy Shannon delivers a polished production, and coaxes excellent performances from Chrysan, Patel, Hansard and Knezevich, in particular. Anne Kennedy contributes appropriate, time-specific costumes and a whole wardrobe of zany party attire. And designer Brian Sidney Bembridge’s wall of ancient-looking Moorish arches becomes a multi-purpose setting for domestic exchanges, prison beatings and, of course, tennis.

Khalidi is a young writer of extraordinary promise, but his story – the motivations and conflicts of his characters – could use a bit of minor fine-tuning. I was never quite sure what, if anything, Yusef had done to deserve his punishment or why his relationship with his nephew was so fractured. (Except for liking the British, how has Tariq so offended his uncle?) Who these people are, and what their story is, could use some clarification.

Still, “Tennis in Nablus” is a lovely new play and another feather in the cap for the Kendeda competition. With flair and originality, Khalidi defuses the solemnity of his story by masking it with comedic zest, and yet he never negates the horror of the final twist.

Theater review

“Tennis in Nablus”

Grade: B+

Through Feb. 21. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. $25-$30. Alliance Theatre, Hertz Stage, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org

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