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Off-Broadway Review

Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven

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Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven
In his finest polemical plays, George Bernard Shaw makes us forget that a debate is raging by having colorful characters speak his sociopolitical dialogue. Russell Davis' intense "Mahida's Extra Key to Heaven," with its four vivid souls, takes another tack: You sense a stark geopolitical metaphor unfolding until you can't miss it.

Thomas (James Wallert) sees Mahida (Roxanna Hope) alone on a pier. It's dark on this nameless island that might be East or West Coast. Mahida awaits a ferry that won't run again till morning. Eventually, Thomas persuades her to sleep at the home of his mother, Edna (Michele Pawk), whom he is visiting. He's besotted; she's Iranian but also sad. Her brother, Ramin (Arian Moayed), has recently arrived in the U.S. from Iran and has stranded her on the island after an argument.
 
Next morning, Edna is unfazed by Mahida on the couch. Edna is friendly but a model of conservative U.S. values. She tells Mahida how much America wants Third World nations like Iran to modernize, blissfully overlooking millennia of Persian history. Later, with Thomas and Mahida elsewhere getting better acquainted—he's an aspiring painter, she's an aspiring writer—Ramin arrives. Now Will Pomerantz's staging turns dark. Step by strident step, Ramin literally invades Edna's space. Tensions rise; violence inevitably erupts. Still, Davis' script is intentionally vague. In the end we can't tell if Ramin murders Edna. True, she was too full of swagger to see his threat. But Ramin may know something about Edna's fate—that is, America's fate—that the rest of us can only infer. This is powerful stuff.
 
On the other hand, Davis tests our patience. The picture Thomas draws and the story Mahida recites are such heavy-handed metaphors that one can only conclude they've deliberately been placed there by the playwright. Similarly, the metaphor of a ferry not running—the inability to sail to safety—is near impossible to miss. Luckily, Pomerantz asks the actors to play the play, not the symbolism, and it works. If Pawk overplayed the mawkish mother, she wouldn't be so charming. If Moayed underplayed Ramin's loathing of the West, he wouldn't ooze menace.
 
Meanwhile, Wallert and Hope inhabit more-moderate characters, orphans from a sane world in which we no longer live. Gentle artists to their core, they're in love by play's end, which is set on that long-awaited ferry—one of several coups d'theatre by set designer Mimi Lien. Edna's also there, bruised but unbowed. Where they're headed, no one knows.
 

Presented by Epic Theatre Ensemble at the Peter Norton Space, 555 W. 42nd St., NYC. Sept. 26–Oct. 18. Mon.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (866) 811-4111 or www.ovationtix.com. Casting by Calleri Casting.

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