Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Hotter Than Egypt
The trouble here is with Paul's and Jean's marriage. Though they feign happiness and contentment, it's clear they have serious issues. They talk at each other, around each other, and occasionally to each other, but never with each other. The tension begins early on, when Paul is chatting with Maha about the differences between American and Islamic cultures. In true "ugly American" fashion, Paul adopts a tone of superiority and privilege as he (he thinks politely) asks Seif "Has there ever been at any time in history a theocracy that worked out well?" Paul thinks he's being culturally aware and respectful, but as will become clear over the next 100 intermission-less minutes, what Paul thinks he's saying, and what he's actually communicating are often very different.
When Jean returns from a dip in the hotel pool, wearing only a bikini with a towel around her waist, Paul is certain his wife is offending Seif's and Maha's Islamic sensibilities. Paul doesn't want to offend, saying he "respects custom and traditions," to which Seif wryly replies, "If you will allow me not to offend you back." Maha assures them that they are guests, on vacation, and they should enjoy themselves without worrying about giving offense. Maha tells Seif (they sometimes speak to each other in Arabic to keep these asides to themselves, indicated to us by the loss of their Egyptian accents) that, if they "resent them for being westerners," their career as tour guides may be short lived. Changing the subject, Maha and Seif slip back into English, and discuss the plans for Jean's and Paul's evening–a sunset cruise on the Nile–and the days to come.
It's on the boat, ostensibly for a romantic outing, that things really start to go south for Jean and Paul. In Yussef El Guindi's dramatically taut play (with skilled direction by John Langs and wonderful performances from each member of his cast), Paul comes across as a bit of a conundrum. Not to us, but to the other characters, for it seems Paul can never answer a question directly or maintain a linear conversation. He's always hedging, or veering off in a different direction, changing topics, and–above all–being oblivious to the impact his ill-considered comments have on those around him. There's a terrific moment on the boat trip that perfectly encapsulates the way Paul fails to connect with the world around him: he wants the boatman to take a picture of him and Jean, but with almost zero English skills, the boatman keeps snapping photos at exactly the wrong moment in a way that perfectly mirrors Paul's own clumsy timing and clueless commentary.
Hotter Than Egypt isn't a comedy by any means, for what's at stake for these characters (primarily their continued relationships) is deadly serious, yet the show is filled with laughs. There are moments when Paul casually blurts out something deeply offensive–which he imagines is perfectly polite–that caused the opening night audience to gasp in a sort of he-didn't-just-say-that-did-he way that reinforces just how oblivious he is. El Guindi's language is so dynamic and his structure so well crafted that the tension builds slowly and inexorably toward a conclusion that will be tragic–in one way or another–for all of these characters.
Hotter Than Egypt runs through April 24, 2022 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets range from $25-$60. For tickets and information, please visit marintheatre.org or call the box office at 415-388-5208.