DAMASCUS by David Greig, directed by Philip Howard (Traverse Theatre/World Stage). At Premiere Dance Theatre (207 Queen's Quay West). To Saturday (April 26), Thu-Sat 8 pm, matinee Saturday 2 pm. $40, stu/srs rush $13. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNN
There's an element of intrigue in David Greig's Damascus, the latest World Stage presentation, but ironically it's not in the setting or characters so much as in the niceties and ironies of language.
Paul (Ewen Bremner, best known in North America for his work in Trainspotting) has come to the Syrian capital to peddle his company's English-as-a-foreign-language textbooks. His contact in Damascus, Muna (Nathalie Armin), has problems with some of the political and social nature of the books' material; she's also troubled by her boss, Wasim (Alex Elliott), who's putting the moves on her by writing her erotic poems.
Paul's other connection in Damascus is the romantic, dreamy hotel desk clerk, Zacharias (Khalid Laith), who wants to use the Scottish man to meet women -- Scottish, American, anyone who will satisfy his shy desires and maybe offer him a way out of Syria -- and also to sell his autobiographical screenplay ("with mythological elements") to Hollywood.
Literally overseeing the action is Elena (Dolya Gavanski), a cocktail pianist perched high above the action, functioning both as chorus and narrator while she explains her daily routine and complains comically about her work.
There's a promise of mysteries in the first few minutes of the show, but the payoff isn't a strong one.
Bremner, new to the role, keeps Paul too low-key to involve the audience. Drawn to Muna and eventually connecting with her, the tentative and willing-to-accommodate Paul needs an air of desperation and a sense of conflict that Bremner doesn't offer. He handles the role's humour nicely, but not the character's deeper side.
A couple of performances stand out. Weaving tartness and tenderness in her character, Armin suggests nuance with body and speech, while Laith's honest work makes Zacharias's desperation both touching and comic.
There's more comedy in the convention that's established early on -- that Wasim speaks no English and Paul no Arabic; they share a little French (little on Paul's side, anyway). Muna translates for them, but what the audience hears from all three characters in the English/Arabic impasse is English.
The real strength of the writing lies in the levels of meaning in that most mundane of topics, grammar. Given the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) seduction attempts -- advances as well as retreats -- involving Paul, Muna and Wasim, there's a surprising emotional subtext buried in phrases like "past perfect" and "conditional past tense."
Word choice has a politically tinged tension here, both in business and personal relationships; the unaware Paul is wrong to say, "It's only language."
This visit to Damascus holds some points of interest, but the tour should be a richer one.