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Oh My Sweet Land
Halfway through this singular one-woman drama, “you might feel like a monster” for worrying that onions might be burning, said Alexis Soloski in The New York Times. “Yet that is what makes Amir Nizar Zuabi’s play so devastating.” The writer-director is staging the show inside various homes in the New York City area, welcoming the audience right into the kitchen to watch actress Nadine Malouf unspool a wrenching story about Syria’s civil war while she cooks. Her unnamed character, a Syrian-American New Yorker, recently had an affair with a married Syrian exile, and she recounts her harrowing bid to find him after he returned to the Middle East to aid family. Malouf is so engaging that “you’d be happy to tag along with her on far less eventful journeys.” But food sounds and aromas keep pulling the audience back to New York, reminding us how incapable we all are of fully wrapping our heads around such a distant war.
The entire show has “a furious intensity that’s not easily shaken,” said Nicole Serratore in The Village Voice. Malouf rarely takes her eyes off members of the audience as she taps into muscle memory to prepare kibbe, a traditional Syrian dish. “Guided by Malouf’s relentless stare, we become passengers on her character’s impulsive and complicated voyage, which turns out to be less about romance and more about identity, memory, borders, and the blurred lines between them.” As she shares harrowing tales she collected from Syrian refugees she encountered in Lebanon and Jordan, fresh-chopped onion stings our eyes and the sweet smell of gently roasted pine nuts “gives over to a sharp acridity.” The violence described can be felt viscerally, and the personal becomes political “without veering into lecturing.”
But the love story that initially drew us in “begins to feel like cheap rice under bloody red meat,” said Zachary Stewart in TheaterMania.com. Only in fairy tales does a person follow a married lover to a war zone just to reconnect, while all the refugee stories feel chillingly real. Malouf covers up for that flaw in the script by pouring emotion into her performance, creating a character who’s both “irresistibly engaging and possibly a little crazy.” Thanks to her commitment, said Jeff Lunden in NPR.org, “the onions, spices, and stories linger long after the final bow.”