Violence haunts the four Palestinian women occupying an anteroom of the afterlife, a halfway house to a heaven they hope will provide the answers to all their fears.
These souls in Samuel Beckett-like transit are The Black Eyed, which happens to be the title of Betty Shamieh s provocative if sometimes bewildering theater piece, which opened Tuesday at off-Broadway s New York Theatre Workshop.
The women span the centuries – from ancient times to the present – and so does the violence they inflict and receive. That conceit makes the play sound more abstract than it actually is, but then Shamieh doesn t make things easy for the audience by throwing overboard such theatrical conventions as a linear plot line.
What we get instead are dense, interlocking remembrances, not quite soliloquies, of what happened in life to each of these now-dead, but still chattering ladies.
From a famous-name perspective, the best known is Delilah (of Samson and Delilah fame) portrayed with an appropriate sexual smirk by Emily Swallow. She sees Samson as a terrorist and herself as a victim – used by Samson as well as by the men of her tribe to seduce him for their gain. Yet she, too, has her own motives, most specifically to avenge her brother s death.
Revenge also permeates the tale of medieval Tamam (Lameece Issaq), whose brother is killed by Crusaders after he joins a rebel group to fight the Europeans. His gruesome death is graphically described in a calm, matter-of-fact manner by Issaq in one of the evening s more somber and unnerving passages.
Yet a dark humor also snakes through the play, fluidly directed by Sam Gold. It s mostly present in the showy portrait of a nameless, modern woman, identified only as the Architect. As played by the kinetic Janine Serralles, she is the play s most fully formed and likable character: a jittery, neurotic woman who has fantasies about having sex with her boss and who then dies in a plane hijacking.
Keeping tabs on the other three women is the scolding Aiesha, a suicide bomber, who succeeds only in blowing up herself and a little Arab girl. Aysan Celik plays her with a grim, one-note determination.
Shamieh s writing is often powerful, particularly in its description of violence. But it can also turn cheeky, catty and modern-sounding when these sisters in suffering express skepticism of each other.
Designer Paul Steinberg s bare, nondescript setting of pale-pink plywood extends over the ceiling of the theater, making the women s entrapment feel all the more like limbo.
At the beginning of the evening, the suicide bomber proclaims, Unanswered questions. Unquestioned answers, phrases that get repeated as the play ends. Both are present in The Black Eyed. Yet there is an even more pervasive constant: the methods of violence may change down through the centuries, but the horrifying pain they inflict remains the same.