The Marin Theatre Company has been presenting top-notch productions of often provocative plays for years, so color me a bit surprised by their latest offering. They are currently hosting the world premiere co-production (with Seattle’s ACT) of Yussef El Guindi’s Hotter Than Egypt. The John Langs-directed production runs through April 24.
The Egyptian-born, London-raised El Guindi’s works often center on the culture clashes that Arab and Muslim-American immigrants face. In Hotter Than Egypt, those clashes take place in an upscale Cairo hotel room between an American couple on an anniversary trip and their Egyptian tour guides.
Paul (Paul Morgan Stetler) and Jean (Jen Taylor) are in Egypt for a two-fer—Paul’s business dealings and the couple’s 24th wedding anniversary. Their tour guides are locals Maha (Naseem Etemad) and Seif (Wasim No’Mani). The newly engaged couple are desperate to do a good job, with Maha prodding her novice fiancé to let Paul’s often-oafish comments (usually delivered in the guise of cultural sensitivity) slide.
Jean’s appearance in their hotel room in a bikini and towel in the presence of Maha and Seif leads to a crackling conversation between the parties (and themselves) about cultural norms and mores.
Just when you think you’re in for an examination of the difficulty of tip-toeing through a minefield of religious and political differences, it becomes clear that the play is really about the dissolution of a decades-long marriage and the early cracks in an impending one.
Thoughts of the first act of Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite came to mind as the play unfolded over its 100 intermission-less minutes, with El Guindi’s script containing a lot of humor and several very Simon-esque punchlines.
A fair amount of the humor might be labeled “cringe comedy,” as Paul repeatedly sticks his foot in his mouth in his attempts to be culturally respectful and honest with his wife.
Langs has a strong cast, with Stetler infuriatingly annoying as Paul and Taylor excellent as a woman coming to grips with the reality of her life. Eternad does well as the conflicted but ambitious Maha, and No’Mani does superlative work as the man caught in the middle.
There’s some great stagecraft, as scenes shift from the hotel room to a cruise on the Nile and a visit to the Sphinx.
Hotter Than Egypt seems rather derivative, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t very entertaining.