Ahmed, the central character in the West Coast premiere of Seattle-based playwright Yussef el Guindi’s enormously clever “Language Rooms,” is in trouble.
An American Muslim working as an Arabic translator for the U.S. government in an undisclosed location, Ahmed (a progressively unhinged James Asher) has duties that include interrogating suspected terrorists in all the usual, horrific ways.
But it seems he doesn’t shower with the other guys! He didn’t show up for the Super Bowl party! He’s a misfit and therefore suspect.
The agency itself is up for public scrutiny, so everyone is tense, including Ahmed’s smooth-talking African-American boss, Kevin (a deceptively avuncular Mujahid Abdul-Rashid). “Fear has its merits,” Kevin remarks affably; he’s masterful at manipulating language in ever more convoluted ways.
Although Kevin at first soothingly denies it, Ahmed realizes that Kevin thinks he’s a traitor. “I am a very loyal person — stupidly loyal!” Ahmed protests.
Ahmed’s anxious buddy, Nasser (William Dao), the only other Arabic translator and Muslim on the base, is trying to help him, but, as in a Kafkaesque nightmare, things just keep getting worse.
There’s lots going on in this two-act, dialogue-heavy play, a Golden Thread-Asian American Theater Co. co-production, and it’s to el Guindi’s credit that he has achieved such a sweet balance between serious, relevant drama and dark humor (a captive in shackles is asked to fill out a questionnaire evaluating the agency’s interrogation methods; torture devices include not only pliers and duct tape but also a honey bear, a carton of milk — because terrorists are assumed to be lactose-intolerant).
The plight of the immigrant in America — and the unease we’ve surely all experienced in relationships with family, government and community — is beautifully captured in the characters of Ahmed and his father, Samir (an endearingly open-faced Terry Lamb), a Middle Eastern immigrant who was an engineer at home, a shopkeeper in America.
The frayed bond between old-world father and resentful, new-world son rings true. “How could you bring me to a country where I’d be embarrassed by you?” cries Ahmed, and the question resonates powerfully.
It’s also to the credit of up-and-coming, detail-oriented local director Evren Odcikin, who knows how to integrate realism and absurdity, and his terrific ensemble of actors — who thankfully never play for laughs or pander to the audience — that “Language Rooms” is both hilarious and heartbreaking.
Presented by Golden Thread Productions/Asian American Theater Company
Where: Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays (except no show today), 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 11
Tickets: $20 to $28
Contact: (415) 913-7366, www.brownpapertickets.com/event/206760