A hotshot young corporate lawyer discovers she has an Iraqi half-sister from her father’s long ago extramarital relationship in Wendy Graf’s riveting Closely Related Keys, a World Premiere drama as topical as today’s headlines.
Statuesque, stunning Julia (Diarra Kilpatrick) would seem to have it made in 2010 New York City with her steadily rising position at a politically conservative Manhattan law firm, a stylish high-rise apartment-with-view, and a handsome work partner to provide additional “benefits” on the side. So what if she’s working for “old-fashioned asshole Republicans” and has been given the nickname “Little Dragon Lady” around the law firm. She’s just been awarded her very first “big stuff” assignment as second chair to colleague/bedmate Ron’s (Ted Mattison) first, and it doesn’t get much better than that.
Then comes the bombshell dropped by her onetime army chemist dad—“Julia, you have a sister” —and her entire world is turned upside-down.
That Charlie (Brent Jennings) had an affair with Adah during his seven-year stay in Iraq is something Julia has known about for years, the relationship having ended his marriage to Julia’s now-deceased mother and pretty much destroyed any father/daughter bond that once existed. That her dad’s illicit relationship produced a daughter, now a gifted young violinist with a dream to study at Juilliard, is a hard new pill for Julia to now swallow, and not merely because, as Julia puts it, “These people would do anything to come over here.” Charlie has the gall to ask Julia to let her half-sister stay at her place, at least temporarily, with a reminder that “this is about family.” “Not my family,” spits back his outraged daughter.
With three weeks remaining before her half-sister’s arrival, it’s easy enough for Julia to immerse herself in the case she and Ron are sharing (and winning). Then comes a knock on her door, and standing there a week early is Neyla (Yvonne Huff), head wrapped in a scarf and violin case in hand, and with Charlie not answering his phone, Julia has no choice but to let the young Iraqi woman stay the night.
A bit of uncomfortable chitchat with Neyla reveals a young woman who defies her older sister’s preconceived notions. If the Iraqi wears a hijab and loose-fitting, long-sleeved, floor-length garb, it is not because she is forced to but out of personal choice. And Neyla is the hardly uneducated Middle Easterner Julia may have been expecting. She speaks not only Arabic and English but a half-dozen more languages, the result of “so many people in and out of my country, coming and going.”
Less surprising, perhaps, are the war-related nightmares that plague Julia’s sister’s fitful sleep. And when, with Julia off at work, Neyla skypes with Tariq (Adam Meir), a fellow Iraqi who reassures her, “All will be fine. It is just as we hoped. Just as we planned,” it seems entirely possible that Neyla may just fit another post 9/11 stereotype. “It is very important that you stay with her,” Tariq reminds Neyla. “Don’t worry,” she replies. “It will be done.”
Could Julia have been right when she suggested to her father that this long-lost sister/daughter might be a terrorist?
All this is merely the start of playwright Graf’s edge-of-your-seat drama, one whose Act One setup leads to plenty of Act Two surprises and a chance for Kilpatrick to prove beyond a doubt that her Best Lead Actress Scenie for In The Red And Brown Water was no fluke, and for Huff, cast as Neyla a mere ten days before Opening Night, to prove herself equally gifted, the duo’s performances benefitting enormously from the spot-on direction of the always excellent Shirley Jo Finney.
Like Graf’s previous Behind The Gate, Closely Related Keys deals with things Middle Eastern, and like her No Word In Guyanese For Me, with Islam as seen through the eyes of a female protagonist. The most overall satisfying of the three, Closely Related Keys succeeds as both character portrait and family drama, one that taps into our shared national consciousness of a world changed forever on September 11, 2001.
If I have deliberately neglected to mention that Julia and Charlie are African-American, it is partly because their race is, in many ways, incidental to the story Graf has to tell, one that could just as easily have been told with white protagonists. At the same time, like Shonda Rhimes’ hit TV series Scandal, having a racially mixed cast renders Closely Related Keys all the richer, and there can be no complaint whatsoever about any play that brings back to our L.A. stages the captivating star of In The Red And Brown Water.
Graf isn’t afraid to make Julia more than a bit of (excuse my French) a bitch, and Kilpatrick isn’t afraid to play her that way, yet both playwright and actress make it abundantly clear how a childhood shattered by her parents’ estrangement along with a burning need to rise to the top of a WASPy male-dominated profession could add up to an icy, steel-edged “Dragon Lady” with little or no desire to bond with a sister she never knew she had, particularly one who can’t help sparking memories of the day Muslim terrorists crashed twin jets into those twin towers.
Still, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict that ice and steel may begin to melt post-intermission (the Motown’s Greatest Hits sequence is a particular winner), and as Julia’s hard-as-nails surface begins to crack, so does Kilpatrick’s superb performance grow exponentially richer, deeper, and more moving.
Huff matches her every step of the way, vanishing into Neyla’s Iraqi skin so completely that it seems scarcely conceivable that the young woman onstage at Hollywood’s Lounge Theatre hasn’t just alighted from a Baghdad-LAX flight. This reviewer has taught countless Arab women in his day job as ESL instructor, and I can assure you, Huff’s performance is as spot-on as they get.
Jennings brings decades of life and career experience to his fine performance as Charlie, Mattison does very good work as a work colleague/bed partner who thought he was something more, and Meir is thoroughly believable as a young Iraqi with a compelling reason to leave his homeland.
There are a couple of language-related flaws in Graf’s script that could easily be remedied. Knowing that Neyla and Tariq are choosing to skype in English rather than Arabic would save us from that 1960s movie convention of having foreigners speaking to each other English for no logical reason. Later, having Charlie briefly summarize/paraphrase a letter he reads aloud would be considerably more credible than having him translate word-for-word (and with hardly a moment’s hesitation) a letter written in an extremely complex foreign tongue and handwritten right-to-left in Arabic script to boot. (As is, the letter sounds like it was written in English with a non-native speaker’s occasional grammatical mistakes.)
There can be absolutely no quibbles about Hana Sooyeon Kim’s scenic and projection design, not only stylish (with a clever integration of the Lounge’s brick walls into her set) but a design that allows multiple changes in scene and locale as quick as movie cuts, a rarity even in the best staged L.A. productions. Donny Jackson’s lighting is equally accomplished, as is Peter Bayne’s dramatic sound design and original music. Costume designer extraordinaire Naila Aladdin Sanders outfits Julia in leg-revealing minis (and some sexy spike heels too) that contrast strikingly with Neyla’s Iraqi garb, and she’s come up with some just-right outfits for the men as well. Cast member Meir doubles effectively as dialect coach.
Closely Related Keys is produced by Racquel Lehrman and associate produced by Victoria Watson for Theatre Planners. Casting is by Raul Clayton Staggs. Kathleen Jaffe is production stage manager.
Particularly polished for a World Premiere, Wendy Graf’s Closely Related Keys deserves a regional theater life beyond its current Hollywood engagement. In the meantime, it couldn’t be in more splendid hands than it is with Finney, Kilpatrick, and Huff in charge.
Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. Through March 20. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 7:00. Thursday March 20 performance sold out. Reservations: 323 960-7774
March 1, 2014
Photos: Ed Krieger