Zach Galifianakis, a comic who has mastered the art of making things so unfunny as to be hilarious, hosts a notoriously awkward online talk show called “Between Two Ferns.” In it, he seats himself and a guest – past participants have included Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Justin Bieber – between two leafy specimens, and the unexpected ensues: Galifianakis asks uncomfortable questions, the guest gives similarly twitchy answers, and in the best scenarios, viewers leave with a new understanding of the interrogated.
Zayd Dohrn’s new play “The Profane,” which is currently running at Playwrights Horizons, could as easily have been titled “Between Two Living Rooms.” Situating two immigrant Muslim families, soon to be linked by marriage, between their respective homes, the play attempts to use the awkwardness of the families’ contrasting lifestyles to expose the prejudices, contradictions, intimacies and joys of not just the families, but the societies they represent.
It’s a play designed to create controversy: The experiences of Muslim immigrants in the United States, and the attitude of Americans towards Muslims at large, are currently among the most contentious subjects in the country.
A white, Jewish playwright attempting to tackle them is sure to elicit accusations of exploitation, warranted or not. (Dohrn, the son of former Weather Underground leaders Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, spent the first four years of his life in hiding with his parents, who were then on the run from the police; radical subject matter would appear to be, for him, something of an inheritance.)
And at a time when the strained dynamic between the observant and the secular characterizes most American religious groups, with ramifications for the country at large, a play titled “The Profane,” and which features a climax marked by an act of desecration is a bold proposition.
That’s quite the set of fraught premises. It’s not much of a surprise, although it is a disappointment, that “The Profane” turns out to be anything but.
The language is tame; the plot, tame; the set, in its attractive depiction of middle-class gentility, almost aggressively tame. Even the boldest character – an underemployed, foul-mouthed, lesbian daughter – isn’t given much to do aside from make staid attempts to shock her family. (She doesn’t wear a bra! Unheard of, for a bartender who works in Brooklyn!)
The play’s surprising timidity is partially an issue of structure: “The Profane” begins as a broad exploration of some of the big questions of Muslim-American life – first and foremost, the various benefits and pitfalls of adopting a secular or religious lifestyle – and, realizing it can’t answer them, makes a late detour towards the realm of character study. (The play’s last third is marked by rushed, extreme revelations, as if Dohrn, having recognized that he cannot solve the universe’s great mysteries, instead tried to make its occupants more mysterious.)
Alas: The play’s characters, who initially enchant with outsize personalities and pithy banter, aren’t strong enough to support that shift.
That’s no fault of the actors portraying them, who are mostly excellent. Instead, the characters’ general thinness is partly a factor of the confused structure into which they’ve been forced. Characters penned with an eye for authentic everydayness are difficult to coax into supporting cosmic themes, and cosmic characters, always partially symbolic, make confusing fodder for the intimate interpersonal dynamics Dohrn belatedly attempts to explore.
He wants his two families, arguing about the relative merits of heaven and earth, to move elastically between the two. Barring an achievement along the lines of Tony Kushner’s astonishing “Angels in America,” which solved the same problem by bringing heaven to earth, that’s an exceptionally demanding order – and “The Profane” falls short of it.
In these flaws of form, character, and purpose, “The Profane” somewhat resembles Steven Levenson’s “If I Forget,” running through April 30 at Roundabout Theatre. That play, set in the comfy abode of a slowly-collapsing Jewish family – has there been a recent epidemic of families falling apart in their well-appointed living rooms? – also aspires to illuminate some of the murkier areas of human experience, and settles for simply observing that those areas exist.
These two plays, which, in their near-simultaneous debuts, have attracted similar levels of general approbation, share more than preferences in plot and bourgeois setting. Both bill themselves as taking on issues of monumental religious and cultural importance; both center on academic-minded male characters who, determinedly expounding on the corrupting negativity of religious practice, cause disaster; both exhibit some smugness over their own daring in addressing that suggested spiritual corruption.
All these elements suggest, on behalf of the playwrights, a desire to achieve something transgressive. That’s a laudable instinct; good theater often involves some disruption of norms, a fact often misinterpreted as a foolproof analogy. If a play is transgressive in the most direct sense of the word, the thinking seems to go – featuring Jews questioning the relevance of the Holocaust, say, or Muslims attacking each other’s holy objects – it must, surely, be noteworthy.
But shock, absent genuine innovation, isn’t worth much. The boldest works in theater’s history have toppled idols not to beg approval of the gesture, but to reveal something unimagined in those idols’ place. That revelation will be new, to each audience member, only once. Done well, it will resonate and confound for a lifetime.
Aspiring to play on the revelatory tension between expectation and ability that has, in different forms, powered works from “Othello” to “Between Two Ferns,” “The Profane” adopts too limited a construction to be successful. It asks questions with new witticisms, but without new real content. It points out multiple idols ready for the toppling, but gives each, at best, a gentle nudge.
“The Profane” won the 2016 Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play, a major theatrical vote of confidence. Congratulations to Dohrn: He is a talented writer, with a sharp ear for dialogue and a deft sense of pacing. But promise can, and should, aspire to something broader, bolder, and less constrained by what’s in vogue. He has the tools to shock us. Next time, I hope he does.
Talya Zax is the Forward’s culture fellow. Follow her on Twitter, @TalyaZax