In Abhishek Majumdar’s tense play at 122CC Theater in Manhattan, every sound underscores what’s left unsaid after a shellshocked veteran’s homecoming.
Waves crash and dogs howl beyond concrete walls, while inside a holding cell a rotary phone trills and typewriter keys lash at a sparsely filled page. There are few moments of quiet in “9 Kinds of Silence,” directed by the playwright Abhishek Majumdar, with original music and densely layered sound design by M. Florian Staab. In this tense parable about a soldier’s homecoming that opened at 122CC Theater in Manhattan on Monday night, every sound underscores what’s left unsaid.
A clerical worker known as Mother, played by Hend Ayoub, fills the already-thick air with words. She is “training returning soldiers to belong,” in accordance with a government manual on her cluttered desk that encourages veterans to speak before they’re sent back into the arms of their own mothers. (Officials fear, we later learn, that these bottled-up vets will explode, posing a threat to their homeland.)
Clammed up and shellshocked, her current case, known as Son, played by Joe Joseph, is slumped in a chair on the other side of a beat-up tarp that divides the room in two (the set and costumes are by Jian Jung). His eyes are obscured by dark glasses, his shoulders are hitched up to his ears and his arms are slung across his ribs in a limp embrace. Mother salutes this Son as a hero, but if this is his reward, it hardly seems worth the cost.
Ayoub rises admirably to the challenge of playing opposite a character arrested by trauma, in what is, for a significant portion of the production’s 80 minutes, essentially a one-woman show. Her clerk leads the crumpled soldier in vocal exercises meant to reanimate his national fealty, including sounds of recognition (“aha!”) and different shades of laughter, a highlight of Ayoub’s performance. As the play progresses, she begins to question, at her own peril — and in a tenor that grows increasingly personal — the meaning of patriotic sacrifice.
Majumdar casts his antiwar critique in familial terms; the militarized regime to which both Mother and Son are bound is figured as patriarchal. Though the play includes prayers in Arabic, and references to a spiritual prophet and a supreme leader, its geopolitical context is left deliberately vague.
Mothers sending their sons into battle, and the physical and spiritual wounds inflicted on everyone in the process, is near universal territory. But in foregoing both character development and broader specifics of time and place, Majumdar winds up treading a muddy middle ground.
The play’s observations about nationalism, faith and the human tolls of war feel remote and theoretical, despite the intimate scale. When it comes time to land an emotional punch, the impact here is muffled.
9 Kinds of Silence
Through Oct. 7 at 122 Community Arts Center, Manhattan; playco.org. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.
Source: Theater - nytimes.com