'The Vagrant Trilogy' review: Palestinians in exile, yearning for home

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'The Vagrant Trilogy' review: Palestinians in exile, yearning for home
From left: Charlotte O’Leary, Mark Rylance, Mackenzie Crook, Kemi Awoderu and Ed Kear in a revival of “Jerusalem,” at the Apollo Theater in London in April 2022. The revival is no museum piece coasting on past kudos, but a vital experience with a revitalizing effect, Matt Wolf writes. Simon Annand via The New York Times

by Laura Collins-Hughes

NEW YORK, NY.- The matinee audience was filing out of the Public Theater’s LuEsther Hall the other afternoon when stagehands started dismantling the set — a rickety home in a refugee camp in Lebanon, where Mona Mansour’s border-crossing, alternate-realities epic “The Vagrant Trilogy” winds up.

The scenery coming down before we’d left the room was a jolt: I’d wanted to stay in the show’s world for just a little longer. Which is saying something when a production stretches to 3 1/2 hours, including two intermissions. And when, courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic, both lead roles are being performed by understudies.

But Mansour’s rich trilogy about a displaced Palestinian family is captivating, and for all the protean theatricality of Mark Wing-Davey’s gorgeous production, watching it feels somehow like being engrossed in a novel, with that same luxuriant sense of immersion and transport. Woven of poetry and politics, threaded with comedy, it’s Stoppardian in its intellectualism and doesn’t shy from poignancy.

Is it poor form to invoke a British dramatist when discussing a play that’s in no small part about the ravages of British colonialism? Quite possibly. But Mansour’s Palestinian characters are smitten in their own ways with touchstones of British culture. And Stoppard is, after all, a Czech-born immigrant.

“The Hour of Feeling,” the trilogy’s first play, starts with a meet-cute on a hilltop near Ramallah in April 1967. Adham, a young scholar just back from Cairo and cultivating an expertise in the poetry of Wordsworth, is busy avoiding a party. Abir, a rebellious young woman raised on a nearby farm and modeling her personal style on film star Julie Christie, has come up for a smoke. (There is much atmospheric smoking in these plays, which are spoken mainly in English and occasionally in Arabic, with English supertitles.)

Abir and Adham’s attraction is instant. By June, when they fly to London for a lecture that he is giving, they are newlyweds. And when the Six-Day War breaks out during their trip, they face a choice: to remain abroad, in cosseted academia, or return home to upheaval.

The rest of the trilogy explores each of those possibilities, proffering two different, incompatible realities that stem from 1967. The second play, “The Vagrant,” finds Abir and Adham in London in 1982, having decided to stay in a country that will always view them as other. In the third play, “Urge for Going,” set in the Lebanese refugee camp in 2003, home and family lured them back all those years ago, only to mire them in a different exile.

“Palestine?” Abir’s brother says dryly to his niece, in the camp. “Your father’s homeland, 30 minutes away, depending on traffic.”

Mansour has calibrated the narrative tension so expertly that in each reality we are deeply invested in the fates of her characters, among them Adham’s mother, Beder, embodied by Nadine Malouf as a funny, formidable, thoroughly unsentimental woman who has fought to give her brilliant boy the best possible chance in a hostile world. Her other son, Hamzi (Osh Ashruf), is a gentle, kindly man whom she left behind as a child, with his father, in that refugee camp, where he spends decades of his life.

Caitlin Nasema Cassidy, as Abir, and Bassam Abdelfattah, as Adham, acquit themselves honorably. Yet maybe because they are understudies, they draw their characters in broader strokes than they might if they had more time to settle into such large roles. (Tala Ashe and Hadi Tabbal, both wonderful off-Broadway in “English” this spring, ordinarily play Abir and Adham.) They are surrounded by a solid company, even if some accents get slippery in the London scenes.

Those scenes are often fun, though, especially the visuals; Allen Moyer’s sets, Dina El-Aziz’s costumes and Tom Watson’s wigs evoke the ’60s and ’80s to delightful effect. (Lighting by Reza Behjat; sound by Tye Hunt Fitzgerald and Sinan Refik Zafar; and video by Greg Emetaz are also excellent.) Malouf has comic magnetism as a flirtatious ’60s Londoner in fabulous orange slingbacks who can’t keep her hand off Adham’s thigh, while Ramsey Faragallah is eccentrically funny as a floppy-haired — and, it turns out, bigoted — ’80s professor who stirs his tea with the eraser end of his pencil.

With Wordsworth’s poetry a motif throughout the trilogy, Mansour examines the sustaining psychic power of a beloved landscape — a home that one may leave but must be able to revisit. And through Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali’s “Abd el-Hadi Fights a Superpower,” a chunk of which makes an affecting monologue by Hamzi in the third play, Mansour suggests the quiet tragedy of the geopolitical bystander: “His God-given rights are a grain of salt tossed into the sea.”

It’s in this final part of the trilogy that we meet the two tightly bonded characters most likely to smash our hearts: Abir and Adham’s teenage daughter, the ebulliently ambitious Jamila (Malouf, at her most splendid), and her vulnerable brother, Jul (Rudy Roushdi, tenderly lovely). As bookish as Adham, Jamila is studying to get into college and join the wider world.

For now, though, she still sometimes pretends with Jul that he is a talk-show host and she a marvelously successful guest with a string of doctorates.

“How did you get out of the refugee camp?” he asks.

“Well, it’s a long story,” she says.

'The Vagrant Trilogy'

Through Sunday at the Public Theater, Manhattan; publictheater.org. Running time: 3 hours 30 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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