BWW Review: Disappointed Expectations Drive Marital Disaster in THE TALENTED ONES at Artists Rep
Many people come to the United States specifically for the purpose of providing a better life for their children, one where they can get a good education and pursue their passions and their talents. This results in immense pressure on those children to succeed. But, not everyone is destined to be the next great artist, and it's all too easy for high hopes to be dashed.
This is the backdrop for Yussef El Guindi's THE TALENTED ONES, now playing at Artists Rep. THE TALENTED ONES is the first fully staged play to come out of ART's Table|Room|Stage series, which over the next two years will commission eight new plays, by mostly women and people of color.
In the play, Omar (John San Nicolas) and Cindy (Khanh Doan), both children of immigrants, take the fact that their lives haven't turned out as planned out on their marriage - Omar (an aspiring writer) by lying to Cindy about losing his job and a few other things, and Cindy (who still has dreams of becoming a dancer) by entertaining a dalliance with the couple's friend Patrick (Heath Koerschgen).
Over the course of an evening, the lies come to light and the relationships between the three devolve into a violent mess. Younger versions of Omar (Michel Castillo - who was excellent in this role and delivered my favorite performance of the night) and Cindy (Madeleine Tran) make an appearance through dreams and memories, providing a contrast between the aspirations of youth and the disappointments of real life.
If you saw El Guindi's THREESOME at Portland Center Stage a few years ago, THE TALENTED ONES will feel familiar, in both its strengths and its weaknesses.
On the strengths side, THE TALENTED ONES gives us a look into the experience of a group underrepresented in theatre. As an immigrant himself, El Guindi has an intimate knowledge of the struggles immigrants face in their quest for some version of the American Dream. He uses language and humor to make these struggles accessible to those of us without such firsthand knowledge.
On the weaknesses side, in trying to be funny, the play loses sight of the human story at its core. The comedy is most effective when it's wrapped around something insightful about the complexities of the immigrant experience. Unfortunately, like in THREESOME, these subtler moments are overshadowed by cheaper laughs from raunchy language and penis jokes. In my opinion, too much of the plot seemed in service of this cheaper humor.
I also found the characters one-dimensional, with no real development over the course of the play. Cindy and Omar, the immigrants of no particular ethnicity, were unhappy because of thwarted dreams. Patrick, who represented America, felt entitled to just do whatever he wanted, even if that meant stealing his friend's wife regardless of her wishes, and he turned into a whiny bully when he didn't get his way. Their interactions didn't really evolve - they just went around in a circle, the conversations getting louder every time.
Overall, I felt that the story El Guindi was trying to tell got buried under too many other layers. There was a beautiful moment at the end, with the present-day Omar and Cindy on one side of the stage and the young Omar and Cindy on the other. It perfectly encapsulated the contrast between reality and the idealism of youth. I just wish the journey to that moment had been more relatable.
THE TALENTED ONES runs through May 21. More tickets and info here.
Photo credit: Brud Giles