There’s one moment in Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World that almost every American of immigrant stock can relate to. It’s when Musa, a soft-spoken, Egyptian-born New York cabbie, explains to his Egyptian-American fiancé why he wants to leave the ways of the old country behind. It’s a poignant scene and one that has been repeated millions of times since the founding of the U.S.
Unfortunately, this is the only place in the play that Musa is believable as a real human being. The rest of the time, both he and the other main character, his slutty American girlfriend Sheri, seem like cardboard figures, designed to represent “types” rather than actual people. This is largely the fault of playwright Yussef El Guindi, who has created personalities and reactions that simply don’t make sense in the situation at the core of the play.
The story is straightforward. Musa meets Sheri, a waitress at a local coffee shop, and brings her home one evening. Sheri, a potty-mouth who by her own admission sleeps around (“In about five minutes, I’m going to be a cinch to bag”), comes on to Musa almost immediately, and not surprisingly they wind up in bed.
From here, though, the script veers off into territory that is simply not believable. Musa falls in love with Sheri, whose nonstop stream of curse words soon becomes tiresome at best, offensive at worst. Even if there were a strong physical attraction between them — which actors Shanga Parker as Musa and Carol Roscoe as Sheri fail to communicate — it’s hard to imagine that the quiet Musa would want to spend the rest of his life with the hard-edged, culturally insensitive Sheri, who at one point goes so far as to call Musa’s gentle, observant Muslim fiancé a “bitch.”
There are other aspects of the characters and the story that are equally implausible. Though Musa deceives both Sheri and his fiancé, Gamila, he never fully acknowledges the hurt he has caused both of them, instead explaining his behavior as a feeling of the heart he cannot control. Remarkably, they both accept his explanation. Gamila hears him out, then wishes him the best. After a brief explosion, Sheri agrees to quit her job and take off with him on an open-ended road trip to discover America, and the play ends on an upbeat, hopeful note in which everyone gets what they want, and need.
Adding to the problems are appearances by two extraneous characters, the ghost of Musa’s roommate, Abdallah, and Musa’s Somali friend Tayyib. Both serve to extol the benefits of life in America, a function that is hardly necessary. Everyone living in the U.S. — or anywhere in the world, for that matter — knows the promise of America even if life here is not always what newcomers expect. But there’s no room for that kind of reality in Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World. El Guindi’s America is one of endless opportunity in which hurtful actions are undertaken with impunity and everyone winds up happy.
Although many of the problems with the play can be attributed to El Guindi’s script, there are acting and staging issues as well. Roscoe as Sheri does the best she can with one of the most disagreeable characters ever to grace the stage, but Shanga Parker completely disappears into the role of Musa — and not in a good way. Parker’s Musa is devoid of passion, even in the early stages of his infatuation with Sheri, and Parker lacks the skill to convey the range of feelings anyone in his situation could reasonably be expected to have. Kimberley Sustad is equally weak as Gamila, and even if El Guindi has not written much vitriol into her words, a more adept actor could create nuances to convey a depth of feeling that Sustad’s Gamila lacks. Although staging in the round presents major challenges, director Anita Montgomery does so less ably than many other ACT directors, making it necessary to strain to hear significant amounts of dialogue.
It’s always disappointing to see a new play fail. There may be the core of an idea worth pursuing here, but El Guindi would be well advised to rework Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World — especially softening the character of Sheri — before shopping it to other theater companies.
If you go: Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World, Tuesdays-Sundays through July 17 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle. Tickets start at $37.50 ($15 students; $20 under 25) and are available at the box office, by phone (206-292-7676), or online.