With 2015’s Portland Center Stage production of Threesome, and now Artists Repertory Theatre’s The Talented Ones, Yussef El Guindi is making a name for himself. That’s good news for the playwright and for Portland. It’s been exciting to see local theater companies get the first crack at El Guindi’s innovative, darkly funny work before it goes on to acclaim in bigger theater markets like Seattle and New York. In his plays, El Guindi, who is Egyptian American and currently lives in Seattle, tends to explore the experiences of immigrants and people of color, and the complex, troubling racial dynamics that can play out in the most seemingly progressive places—something that should be relevant to your interests if you live in a city like Portland.
In The Talented Ones, this concern manifests in the frustrated marriage between Omar (John San Nicolas, doing a kind of evil Jimmy Stewart thing) and Cindy (Khanh Doan, who was excellent in last year’s You for Me for You at Portland Playhouse, and continues that streak here). Cindy and Omar met at their naturalization ceremony as young immigrants, but the dreamy compulsion that drew them together has imploded into resentment, conflict, and possibly attempted murder. Omar’s ostensibly a writer, but his commitment to his art seems to begin and end with languishing inside Starbucks overthinking things while living on Cindy’s income. Cindy, for her part, is a failed ballet dancer, and supporting Omar serves as a paralysis that—perhaps conveniently—keeps her from confronting the fact that she misses dancing. Meanwhile, Omar’s friend Patrick (Heath Koerschgen, perfectly embodying every bland white guy named Matt you’ve ever met) is trying clumsily to seduce Cindy, who’s just frustrated enough with her marriage to entertain his vaguely embarrassing propositions.
Oh man, what a mess, right? And it is. But unlike way too many unhappy marriage-derived domestic dramas, El Guindi’s is cuttingly funny. I mean that literally; The Talented Ones contains a lot of what the MPAA calls “cartoonish violence,” and the dialogue is quippy, sharp-edged, and so full of subtly disappointed pronouncements that much of it wouldn’t be out of place in a Wes Anderson movie, if Wes Anderson movies included people who aren’t white (I love you, Wes, but get it together).
El Guindi’s risky, weird comedy is enough to keep you in your seat, but what’s especially powerful about The Talented Ones is that it deviates from many “good immigrant” narratives that reduce immigrant characters—whether real or imagined—to blandly virtuous caricatures. Cindy and Omar are neither bland nor virtuous. Instead, they’re two very flawed, self-centered, occasionally cruel humans, but their story makes us privy to the complex pressures they grew up with. Why does Omar want to be a writer? Because he thinks it’s what his father would want. Why does Cindy go for ballet, one of the whitest art forms imaginable? Because it felt out of reach when she was a kid. A double-casting gambit puts the characters’ disappointments on display, with Madeleine Tran and Michél Castillo appearing sporadically as the younger, idealistic avatars of their older, sadder counterparts in vignettes that provide useful backstory without descending into maudlin “MY YOUTH!” territory.
But as promising as El Guindi’s writing is, and as satisfying as this production is, I have a complaint: The love triangle is forced. Patrick is a goof! No way is Cindy running off with him! Even worse, the tension it attempts to drive home is way too reliant on the old-school idea that a woman must have a man to take care of her, a turn of phrase that shows up an inexcusable number of times for a script this contemporary. Putting too much emphasis on ~*who Cindy ends up with*~ is a genuine misstep, because the most interesting relationship Cindy has in The Talented Ones isn’t with her perennially disappointing husband or his freeloading pal. It’s with her dancing, the piece of her past that’s the most unresolved—and El Guindi, disappointingly, keeps it that way.