Imagine a show that starts off as a witty immigrant comedy and then suddenly introduces incest, hysteria and gory self-mutilation. It's a bit like watching Kim's Convenience abruptly morph into Blasted. And that's only the first act of Kawa Ada's The Wanderers, the ambitious but ludicrous new play getting its premiere from Cahoots Theatre at Buddies in Bad Times.
Actually, The Wanderers is less reminiscent of Kim's or of Sarah Kane's famously controversial work than it is of Wajdi Mouawad's Scorched. Taking its cue from that powerful saga, Ada's play aspires to be a cunning, convoluted refugee family tragedy with classical overtones. But where Mouawad's playwriting is masterly, Ada's is muddled and often miscalculated.
The story opens in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1978, where a young girl, Mariam (Dalal Badr), is flirting with the unseen Aman, a rich boy and chess prodigy. Mariam confides to Aman that gypsies have predicted she will one day give birth to a peacemaking messiah – a reincarnation of the Persian god Mithra, the prince of light.
Cut to Toronto in 1985, where the adult Mariam and Aman – now refugees of the Soviet-Afghanistan war – have just had a baby boy. Aman (Ada) is celebrating with Joseph (Omar Alex Khan), the part-Iranian owner of the pizza joint where he works, when they are interrupted by Joseph's disturbed 14-year-old daughter, Alice (Badr again). Afflicted with congenital analgesia, or the inability to feel pain, Alice wears oven mitts and goggles for protection; when she behaves lewdly towards Aman, she looks like some over-sexed alien in a low-budget sci-fi flick.
It's not clear if Alice's numb condition is meant to be symbolic of something, but at any rate it leads to a gratuitous, stomach-churning scene of self-harm from which the play never fully recovers. We're still getting over it as the action shifts to a Scarborough laundromat in 2013, where Aman's now-grown son, Roshan (Ada again), confronts the ballsy, middle-aged Marie (Melanie Janzen). Marie, in turns out, is having an affair with Aman, who is now a cab driver, and angry Roshan is bent on getting back at the old man.
From there, Awa the playwright serves up a dog's breakfast of kinky sex, suicide, ghosts, nudity, religious imagery and even some Tennessee Williams poetry. Not to mention the inevitable Greek-tragedy-style denouement. The heart of the play, however, is simply a timeless father-son conflict, in which Roshan hates his father for being unfaithful to his mother, and Aman is upset that his son is gay. They finally hash out their feelings back in Kabul, leading to a penultimate scene involving a Pietà-like tableau and a rather lovely ode to Mariam. At that point the play almost rises to the level of sublime kitsch. But then Awa ruins it with a final section involving the tiresomely crass Marie.
We know the Afghan-Canadian Awa to be an accomplished actor, most memorably playing the deliciously despicable real-estate shark in last season's SummerWorks/Factory hit Iceland. But he shows none of that skill as a writer and it even drags down his performances here. His Aman is at least a droll immigrant caricature, but his Roshan is snide and unsympathetic. Khan, meanwhile, has some effective moments as the elderly Aman, as does Badr as the young Mariam. Janzen is brazenly charmless as Marie.
Director Nina Lee Aquino's production treats the play as if it were, indeed, a Mouawad epic. Camellia Koo has filled the better part of the Buddies space with an imposing set of stone, timber and red gravel to evoke dusty Afghanistan. It's gorgeously lit by Michelle Ramsay in various roseate hues – accenting Awa's sun-god theme – and Aquino's staging includes some arresting visual flourishes. You wish The Wanderers was worthy of their efforts.