Talented. But are they universal?

In the world premiere of Yussef El Guindi's "The Talented Ones" at Artists Rep, flashes of daring, and longing for more

The tomatoes are rinsed, the lasagna’s ready to go, the beers are out. Cindy’s husband is late for dinner, but in The Talented Ones, Yussef El Guindi’s new play that had its world premiere Saturday night at Artists Repertory Theatre, their guest Patrick is more than happy to chat while Cindy finishes the preparations. She confesses a childhood dream, he encourages her, they laugh. There’s a spark there. There’s familiarity in the way the lights come up mid-conversation, the actors munching on real veggies: it’s the kind of everyday platform we’re used to the theater using to catapult us into deeper questions, explorations of ideas that are inevitably billed as universal.

Khanh Doan, John San Nicolas, and Madeleine Tran in “The Talented Ones.” Photo: Brud Giles

The problem with the idea of “universality” in art has been widely acknowledged: what people generally mean by it is something that is written by and about straight white men. They are the generic, universal mode of drama—everyone else is embellishment, specificity. Artists Rep consistently and admirably resists falling into this trap when marketing its intentionally diverse seasons: The Talented Ones, directed by Jane Unger, is not underlined for its status within the season as An Immigrant Play, but presented as a dark comedy about that most universal of topics (at least in this country, where “universal” and “America” are basically synonyms), the American Dream. This balance between universality and specificity—of being a story about everyone, but also about a narrow slice of human experience—is also one that El Guindi strives to strike within the play itself.

Omar (John San Nicolas) and Cindy (Khanh Doan) are immigrants, naturalized in their teens (their younger selves are played by Michél Castillo and Madeleine Tran) and now living out the American Dream of a mortgage, an unsatisfying job, a restless yearning for more, and to have a living room dramedy centered on their marital problems. There is something genuinely refreshing about seeing an Asian woman inhabit the role so often filled by a white actress, bustling around in front of a well-appointed kitchen set (designed by Daniel Meeker), chopping food and lamenting her husband’s recent distraction.  

Cindy once wanted to be a dancer, and Omar is trying to be a writer while Cindy supports him working as a nurse. Both struggle to balance the dreams that immigration was supposed to allow them to pursue with daily realities like bills and mortgages. The intervention of Omar’s work buddy Patrick (Heath Koerschgen) spurs a referendum on their marriage as the trio morphs into a love triangle.  

But El Guindi’s themes about nationhood, artistic inspiration, and the unique shades of immigrant existential angst rest uneasily on this setup. His hyper-articulate characters deliver eloquent explanations of their states of mind and heart, so while much is said, little can be meaningfully challenged by the other characters. As the characters bicker and state their cases, their arguments don’t always feel like they are propelling the play forward, and Unger does not always help weight the relative importance of information and exchanges with variations in texture and tone.

On one point only do the characters truly struggle to make themselves clear: what, Patrick asks, makes Cindy’s description of the weight of her parents’ expectations so different from everyone else’s? Why is her relationship, as an immigrant, to failure and success so different from his? Why aren’t her feelings as universal as they sound to him?

Or are they universal after all? In an interview in the program, El Guindi says that “the immigrant state of mind can be glimpsed by anyone who feels displaced, foreign, or at odds with—and trying to fit into—new surroundings. Which basically covers everyone!”

But El Guindi, whose previous Portland world premiere, 2015’s Threesome at Portland Center Stage, went on to a successful off-Broadway run, doesn’t quite offer such a glimpse. Omar and Cindy’s descriptions of their feelings and experiences as immigrants feel hollow. They feel like second-class citizens. Their parents went through so much hardship, and it was all for them, and they have to live up to that. Acquiring citizenship felt like joining something bigger than themselves. We don’t even learn where they are from, though references to their home countries’ conflicts with America suggest Omar is from the Middle East and Cindy is Vietnamese.

A tad uncomfortable: Khanh Doan, Heath Koerschgen. Photo: Brud Giles

Maybe it’s a writing cliché by now to say that universality comes from specificity. Shakespeare, endlessly lauded as universal, is highly specific in his storytelling: while the loss of parents and struggling to define one’s purpose may be called universal, the story of a medieval Danish prince who experiences these things is unique. Shakespeare does not talk vaguely around the details of King Hamlet’s murder to keep things feeling relatable: his brother poured poison in his ear while he was napping in the garden one afternoon.

Maybe universality itself has come a cliché. Or the victim of a game of conceptual telephone, its actual meaning lost through senseless repetition. These days, it feels like nervous producer shorthand for “please reassure me that my white audiences won’t feel alienated by this,” like another hoop for writers of color to jump through before their work can be deemed producible.

When we say we want “universality,” we don’t really want people who look and talk and think and feel like us, who have no traits that will push us too far away: we want a writer to demonstrate the theater’s power to engender radical empathy. To make us feel connections where we thought none could exist. This is why generalities don’t really work. It’s the careful crafting of the world and perspective of a full human being (or the theatrical illusion of one) that pulls us close and opens us up.

Art creates connection. Omar and Cindy’s initial moment of connection as teenagers centers on her dance, and the implicit acknowledgement that seeing someone’s art will reveal something about them as a person. Though Omar is a writer, we never know anything about the novel he’s working on. In contrast, Cindy feels closest and realest when we get to see her dance.

I don’t actually think Artists Rep or El Guindi fear a touch of alienation. Though The Talented Ones may not offer enough proof of that for my liking when it comes to the characters, the play’s seesaw tone and black comedy are a bracing affront to the kind of domestic drama the play initially seems poised to be. Brief forays into a more surreal aesthetic are intriguing, but don’t feel fully integrated. And there is the excitement of the premise itself: the picture of an all-American house mortgage and open-plan living room and lasagna in the oven and dreams pushed aside, but all underpinned by a journey, by a struggle to claim what their peers and coworkers were born to.

These very flashes of daring, however, are what made me long for more.

The Talented Ones continues through May 21 at Artists Repertory Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.

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