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Review: 'Laws of Sympathy' at Playwrights' Arena

March 5, 2009 |  2:30 pm

LawsofsympathyAh, the perils -– and pleasures -- of live theater.  Unrehearsed and on book, playwright Oliver Mayer stepped in for the ailing Ahmad Enani  last Sunday in “Laws of Sympathy,” Mayer’s world premiere, presented by Playwrights’ Arena at Studio/Stage. Mayer’s last-minute substitution as Mohammed, an aid worker whose fledgling romance with a young refugee woman is star-crossed, made it somewhat difficult to assess the full scope of Jon Lawrence Rivera’s original staging.  Yet in spite of the circumstances, the result was surprisingly full-bodied.

In Mayer’s serio-comic play, two immigrant Somali Bantu women, Mother (Anita Dashiell) and her daughter Jaspora (Diarra Kilpatrick) struggle to assimilate into American society.  Slaves in Somalia, the duo has recently been relocated to Atlanta by their care workers, Mohammed and Betty (Celeste Den).  But work is scarce, and when Jaspora falls under the influence of disgraced former Olympian Gerald (Will Dixon), she may be forced to sell her most marketable commodity -– herself.

The striking production includes Dennis Yen’s sound, Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting, and John H. Binkley’s labor-intensive set, which includes a flat on casters that rotates, busily and sometimes unnecessarily, to indicate different locales. Mylette Nora’s costumes are a colorful amalgam of tribal and Western attire.

In light of the serious subject matter, the play is unexpectedly playful, and Rivera emphasizes the piece’s comic elements at every welcome opportunity.  Yet under the deceptive lightheartedness lies a savage topicality. In recessionary America, the plating on that welcoming Golden Door has worn thin -- as these hopeful refugees will soon learn, to what, we suspect, is their peril.

Among the exemplary cast, Kilpatrick stands out as the girlish, ravaged Jaspora, whose innocence has been prematurely tempered by sad experience. However, the play’s political aptness is occasionally undermined by disingenuous cultural relativism.  More problematic is the progression of stupid and/or hostile white Southern women, all played by Barbara Lee Bragg.  The over-the-top stereotypes may have been comically intended, but tip the proceedings into mean-spiritedness.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

“Laws of Sympathy,” Playwrights’ Arena at Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., Hollywood.  8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays.  Ends March 29.  $20.  (213) 627-4473.  Running time:  1 hour, 40 minutes.

Caption: Celeste Den, Barbara Lee Bragg and Diarra Kilpatrick in "Laws of Sympathy." Credit: Playwrights Arena

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