Romantic, funny and complex, Mosaic Theater Company offers a must-see theatrical event that is sure to warm hearts and occupy minds of those who are lucky enough to experience it. “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World” is a new play by Egyptian-born playwright Yussef El Guindi. This play is equal parts sharp, smart, and filled with heart and is marvelously performed by the cast of five actors, led by Ahmad Kamal and Rachel Felstein.
… a heart-warming tale ready to fill a winter’s night with romance.
All the elements of a romantic comedy are present in El Guindi’s carefully constructed script: star-crossed lovers, surprising complications, insecurities and human frailty. There is even picturesque moon looking down passively on the entanglements. But the play is far more satisfying than a Hallmark Channel romance-of-the-week. This rom-com crosses cultural barriers having a sweet-natured Egyptian cab driver fall for a sassy and talkative American waitress who is anything but shy. He’s a semi-practicing Muslim and she’s a handful of neurotic quirks and a salty mouth. As portrayed by Kamal and Felstein, respectively, Musa and Sheri make for an unlikely yet inevitable pair. Their personal differences draw them together as much as they complicate their relationship, especially as the play progresses.
The intersectional cultural aspects of El Guindi’s are central to the plot, which is one reason this play is part of the long-running Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival, which includes four other titles in addition to “Pilgrims.” The festival, according to Mosaic Theater Company program notes, brings “to life the souls and struggles of the people of the Middle East, humanizing headlines and creating intersectional bonds between communities here in the US and in the region.” For more about the festival, click here.
The play expands the scope of looking at the immigrant experience by including Musa’s small circle of friends and would-be family members. Gerrad Alex Taylor plays the wry and wise Tayyib, a fellow Muslim and service worker who lends advice to Musa. Sanam Hashemi makes a strong impression as the intelligent and proper Gamila, Musa’s intended fiancée, pointing out the clash of cultures and the challenges of assimilation and tradition in a fresh way. Serving as a poetic and omniscient presence throughout the play is Musa’s ill-fated roommate Abdallah, who left New York for a pilgrimage to the Hajj in Mecca. Abdallah is played with ethereal grace by Freddie Lee Bennett.
But the heart of the play is the central lovers, Musa and Sheri; and actors portraying them could make the audience fall in love with them, based on the reactions I observed on opening night. Ahmad Kamal, as Musa, is warm, open-faced, and a gentle giant for whom love is an awfully big adventure. By contrast, his American muse Sheri embodied expertly by Rachel Felstein, is just a mess of independence with no filter.
Felstein and Kamal handle the sensuality of two grown-ups in love with tasteful restraint but with very believable chemistry, making their story even more powerful as they maneuver the extreme ups and downs of their whirlwind relationship. Director Shirley Sertosky is to be commended for her detailed and sensitive direction. The production also credits Claudia Rosales Waters as intimacy consultant. Theatre companies large and small are utilizing intimacy consultants more often now in the current “me-too” culture in order to not glaze over depictions of sex and intimacy onstage. Judging from the staging I witnessed, this production has handled such matters superbly.
Serotsky’s scenic designer Nephelie Andonyadis created a dreamscape of suitcases and other baggage that forms everything from a city skyline to a taxi cab – a whimsical stroke of artistic inspiration. Costume designer Danielle Preston and lighting designer Brittany Shemuga contribute to the success of the production as well. Roc Lee’s atmospheric sound design evokes the old world and the new.
As noted in the opening of this review, the full title of this play is “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World.” Watching the play unfolds as it did, I thought, of course, of the character Abdallah who goes on an actual pilgrimage, and the fact that Musa mentions, casually, that one day he would like to go on one. One of the beautiful moments from Musa and Sheri’s story together is discovering the moment when they embrace the idea of setting off to become, as the title states, pilgrims in the new world. It made me think I hope we one day get to see where Sheri and Musa discovered on their journey and what they discovered about themselves along the way. Perhaps the playwright already has more planned for these new world pilgrims. Time will tell.
For now, we have a heart-warming tale ready to fill a winter’s night with romance. What more could you ask for, really?
Running Time: One hour and fifty minutes, with one intermission.
Advisory: The play contains sexual situations and adult language.
“Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World,” produced by Mosaic Theater Company, runs through February 16 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street, NE – Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-399-7993 (ext. 2) or click here.