NEW YORK — So much more is cooking in Fadwa Faranesh's West Bank kitchen than merely delicious food for her extended family. The touching, comedic new play, "Food and Fadwa" that opened Thursday night at off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop is about a loving, resilient Palestinian family coping with life in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Shana Gold skillfully directs the sophisticated, tenderly humorous, food-centric drama, which combines a mixture of family values and the clash of modern vs. traditional ways, deftly seasoned with political undertones. Eventually, it will break your heart a little.
Fadwa (a sensitive, lively portrayal by Lameece Issaq, who also co-wrote the play with Jacob Kader) is a 30-something, single, Christian Palestinian woman still living at home, lovingly caring for her increasingly demented, long-widowed father, Baba (Laith Nakli, deeply affecting). Through flashbacks of Fadwa's memories, we see Baba as younger and happy, dispensing wisdom with metaphoric imagery about life and death through stories involving his family's beloved olive groves.
To entertain herself, Fadwa blithely enacts episodes of her own television cooking show, complete with an imaginary cameraman, while preparing traditional food for her younger sister's imminent wedding. As Fadwa puts together timeless dishes like baba ghanoush and tabouli, "authentic and true to the culture from which it comes," Issaq provides a brisk, tasty blend of food preparation tips, stories about the symbolism of the ingredients, and increasingly vehement commentary about the gathering family members.
Maha Chehlaoui is delightful as Dalal, Fadwa's sweet sister, especially in her loving interactions with fiance Emir Azzam, a charming rogue well-played by Arian Moayed. Simmering emotions begin to boil when Emir's older brother, Youssif, (imbued with sincerity and decency by Haaz Sleiman), returns for the wedding at long last from New York City. Fadwa's long-distance boyfriend and childhood sweetheart, he's been away for many years.
Unexpectedly, Fadwa's annoying American cousin Hayat, (a nicely oblivious, breezy performance by Heather Raffo), also arrives. Her success in the food world, with a best-selling cookbook and a New York City restaurant that employs Youssif, is based on continual changes she makes to traditional Middle Eastern and Faranesh family recipes, much to Fadwa's irritation. Kathryn Kates rounds out the accomplished cast as Fadwa's chain-smoking, "Arab Idol"-obsessed Aunt Samia.
Life in Bethlehem for this family, under the Israeli occupation, is riddled with random disregard for their dignity, culture and personal safety, as evidenced by a Kafka-esque imposition of confusing regulations, pop-up military checkpoints, and sudden, days-long curfews where nobody in the neighborhood can leave their home, not even to get food or water.
The family nonetheless maintains a semblance of normalcy, at times expressing bitter humor, as they continue wedding preparations and try to work out personal relationships. When a curfew is topped off by a sudden blackout, Emir exclaims with ironic delight, "Good news – the Israelis are helping us go green!" In a seminal scene blending food and politics, the Azzam brothers explain local politics to Hayat by using traditional Middle Eastern food to create a map of the convoluted patchwork of areas under Israeli governmental control, finally flinging salt randomly all over it to indicate the myriad checkpoints.
"Food and Fadwa" sets a high level of achievement as the first co-production between NYTW and the Noor Theatre Company, an Arab-American collective now in residence at NYTW.