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House of Many Tongues

  • Written by Jonathan Garfinkel
  • Directed by Richard Rose
  • Starring Hrant Alianak and Howard Jerome
  • At Tarragon Theatre in Toronto

Alex, the 15-year-old son of a retired Israeli general, believes that he has a real road map to peace with the Palestinians. In fact, he's pretty certain he's got the problem licked.

"How do you know cunnilingus won't save the Middle East?" he asks his math tutor, before imploring her to let him practise his conflict-resolution techniques on her.

Say what you will about it otherwise, Jonathan Garfinkel's House of Many Tongues - the title, you see, is not pretentious, but punning - takes an original approach to the ongoing Arab-Israeli saga.

Unfortunately, Garfinkel has come up with a situation rather than written a play: What if an Israeli and a Palestinian, and their respective 15-year-old children, had to share a house?

After it sets up that microcosm of the Middle East, the play gets tongue-tied and isn't sure where to go. It feels like a pilot for an offbeat new sitcom, something along the lines of The Jihad Couple meets The Israeli Bunch.

Alex and his father, Shimon (Howard Jerome), live in a house on a patch of land captured during the Six-Day War. Their difficult relationship is exacerbated by the surprise arrival of Abu Dalo (Hrant Alianak), a Palestinian writer who claims to have lived there 40 years ago.

When the House recognizes him, Shimon reluctantly lets Abu Dalo stay - as long as he helps him with his memoirs - and soon after his 15-year-old daughter Suha (Erin MacKinnon) shows up on the premises as well.

Wait, yes - let's rewind for a second. The House recognizes Abu Dalo and that's not all the property can do. Played by Fiona Highet - occasionally turning herself into a door or wall, but mainly just watching from the back - The House can talk to her owners and even, if the mood strikes her, dance with them.

The magical realism doesn't stop there. The House is having an on-again, off-again romance with The Camel (Raoul Bhaneja), a womanizing dromedary. ("I hate it when you objectify me," The House tells him.)

If it sounds strange on paper, it works well enough on stage. In fact, House of Many Tongues had me firmly in its unconventional grip at the beginning: There's Shimon's poetic opening monologue about finding his son floating in the river, director Richard Rose's simple staging, and Daniel Karasik's hilarious, understated performance as Alex. I even found myself quite fond of Bhaneja's Camel, who smokes - guess what brand of cigarettes? - and, despite his promiscuous ways, firmly resists all hump jokes.

But as the production progresses, the oddities pile on and drown out all attempts at emotional engagement.

Abu Dalo delivers a paean to a toilet seat and The Camel runs off to Paris, but it's only with the arrival of Suha that the play completely disappears up its own hummus. This Palestinian from the Jenin refugee camp dresses like a devotee of Marilyn Manson and carries around a dead pigeon named Groucho, who she uses as a puppet to tell bad jokes.

Suha also has a strange syndrome that makes her pass out if she experiences extreme emotions. Oh, and she's carrying around the bloody, splattered remains of her mother in a Ziplock bag. Is there a real character buried in this bizarreness? It's true what they say: Too many quirks spoil the Goth.

Once you've had a teenager carry around viscera in a baggie and treated it matter of factly, it's hard to go anywhere else. And yet, Garfinkel tries to move us to no avail with a series of tragic revelations.

"I haven't felt this hopeful since Oslo," the House says, but I have to disagree with the foundation of her argument. All the hope shoehorned into this play feels as naive as Alex's oral-sex diplomacy. If humans really behaved like these characters - there are no extremists here of any stripe, and everyone is racked by guilt - peace would be a cinch.

It's only the final image of a wall being built and slowly dismantled in the middle of the room that actually stirs the soul. It's unfortunate for Garfinkel that the play's sole silent scene is its most effective one.

House of Many Tongues runs until June 3.