Theater reviews: ‘Hotter Than Egypt’ and ‘FEED Aprè’ are hot and cold

In “Hotter Than Egypt,” American businessman Paul fancies himself a culturally astute traveler. He’s been to Cairo before and respects the local customs, a fact he makes a point of when his wife, Jean, clad in a two-piece bathing suit with a towel as partial cover, returns to their hotel room where their tour guide Maha and her fiancé and trainee, Seif, have been waiting.

But make no mistake, Paul is a blowhard. He’s the butt of much of the play’s comedic moments (of which there are many well-timed ones), and an invitation for the audience to be as smugly knowing about his pomposity as he pretends to be in the know about Egypt, Islam, history. This is intentional.

Playwright Yussef El Guindi’s prickly drama at the Denver Center dives headfirst into the meeting of two couples, the clash of two cultures and the contretemps of two romantic relationships: that of Paul (Gareth Saxe) and Jean (Kate MacCluggage), and that of Egyptian tour guide Maha (Ani Djirdjirian) and her fiancé and trainee, Seif (Wasim No’Mani).

“Hotter” opens mid-conversation – well, more like mid-low-grade debate. “But do you believe that sincerely?” Paul asks. He is speaking to Seif — and to a lesser degree Maha — as they await Jean’s return from the pool so they can begin planning sight-seeing excursions.

While Paul holds forth, Maha and Seif confer and bicker with each other in Arabic (in accented English, for the audience). Seif, about Paul’s cultural arrogance: “I want to see how soon before he starts insulting our religion,” he says, barely smiling. Maha, about the rules of the hospitality industry: “We don’t argue with tourists. We entertain them,” she says through an equally fastened smile.

When Jean arrives refreshed, Paul treats her to a lecture about modesty and being the right sort of tourist. He’s vaguely right, but mostly signaling virtue for Maha and Seif’s benefit.

Not unlike Paul, Seif can be overly certain of his opinions, too. Although it’s harder to disagree with him at times, about the hypocrisy, about poverty and affluence. Wasim No’Mani captures the frustrated-but-not-prostrated position of a man exhausted by economic lack but buoyed by his love for Maha, so much so that he is trying to learn a job that feels humiliating so that she can launch a design business.

There will be telling jaunts to a museum (Jean and Seif) and a romantic boat tour along the Nile (Paul and Jean) that turns disastrous. (The latter recalls puns about the great river and the act of denial.) But most often, “Hotter Than Egypt” unfolds in the tight quarters of rooms: Paul and Jean’s hotel room and, later, Seif’s tiny apartment.

There is something about one-room confinement that sets interactions to simmer and then boil.

Heat – or the lack of it – quicky becomes an issue for Paul and Jean. Jean joined Paul on this business trip to celebrate their anniversary. But after her chastisement, she senses something is particularly amiss in Paul’s desire for her. Once she asks, things go south.

Jean proves herself to be an ugly American in different ways. She leads Paul in an early minuet of anger and need that exhausts him and may test the audience’s sympathies as well. Yet when Paul makes an astoundingly absurd confession mid-play, you realize she’s indulged the fool for far too long. This trip was to celebrate their 24th anniversary. Twenty-five seems highly unlikely. The question becomes: Will they drag Maha and Seif down with them?

Under the direction of Denver Center Theatre Company artistic director Chris Coleman, “Hotter” flows and beckons like the patterned wraps that Maha and Jean don (costumes by Lex Liang). The in-the-round Kilstrom Theatre is subtly dazzling. Scenic designer Lisa Orzolek has ringed it with carved eaves; lowers an elegantly patterned chandelier into Paul and Jeans’ lux hotel room; and wheels in an impressive sculpture to signal a museum visit.

The quartet of actors — in addition to James Rana, who portrays several supporting but significant characters — exude an inviting sheen. The production is first-rate.

What is bothersome, then, about “Hotter” is that its central characters feel too much in the service of a playwright’s smart insights about clashing cultures. To some extent, characters are always avatars for a playwright’s understanding of the world, but while the collisions between cultures here is believable, the characters are less so. They entertain – greatly — but do not convince.

While Seif is the most well drawn character, the most intriguing one might be the play’s least fleshed out. As Maha, Djirdjirian seems to straddle the betwixt and between space of Egyptian constraint and Western allure. Even so, her late-in-the-play decision to take Paul up on an offer would seem out of character — that is, if Maha had been more fully realized in the writing.

In a play in which language is an agent of colonialism — but also pushback, if not rebellion — who gets the last word would seem vital. Yet one gets the sense that it is not as significant as who gets the last kiss.

Eat, drink, ski

Early in the first course of the Catamounts’ “FEED: Après,” a friend asked if any of those seated at the end of one of four community tables had seen “The Menu” – the scorch-the-rich movie about the last supper at a rarefied restaurant on an island. The question made sense. After all, “Après” treats its four-course meal as performance and curation. But that’s likely where the similarity ends. What was sadistic onscreen is wonderfully hospitable and creative in the Carsen Theatre at Boulder’s Dairy Arts Center.

As each course was set down, Catamounts’ artistic director Amanda Berg Wilson, along with chef Bob Sargent, stood in the tiny space and introduced what the guests would be eating and drinking, and why each course was paired with the four succinct plays. On a raised stage opposite the action, vocalist and new Catamount associate producer Nika Garcia and guitarist Bill Kopper served up meaningful musical interludes.

I won’t belabor the food — which, from salad to dessert, was ace — but will speak of the tasty plays. The four pieces — plus prologue and epilogue — put an après-ski spin on our coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Consider Berg’s prologue, “Rough Day on the Mountain,” an early amuse bouche. A couple, copper Moscow mule mugs in hand, sits down to discuss a too-icy day on the slopes. Their account of the less-than-perfect conditions soon takes existential turns worthy of Mikaela Shiffrin’s skills. Maggie Tisdale and Sam Gilstrap are silly yet wonderfully serious as schussers Jordana and Laurence.
  • Jason Maxwell shines as a man whose romantic prospects grow dimmer once his girlfriend tells him that they should take a break. In Peter Trinh’s funny/stinging one act, Aaron has just drunk-dialed her after a day on the slopes and then dominos with the fellas. He’s full of joy and beer. She’s in a hospital room with her ailing father. That he called her — heck, that he’s even on this ski vacation — may say much of what you need to know about Aaron, who hangs up and begins asking himself some hard questions that he still may not be able to answer.

  • Playwright Jessica Austgen’s “Scoot” might elicit a spit-take or two from the imbibing audience. Tisdale plays a woman still reeling from the pandemic and hewing to protocols that others have put behind them. Joan Brummer-Holden plays an old friend who clearly began living a little – OK, a lot – as soon as she was able. The play’s title is a nod to one of the most ridiculously funny moments in a play that holds tight to the characters’ increasingly hysterical interactions.
  • McPherson Horle does some heavy lifting in the one-person piece “A Winter’s Tell” by Felice Locker. Samantha addresses with tender resolve an old love who she pushed away after a severe ski accident. Horle embodies a woman who was broken trying to put pieces back together after a long pause.
  • And a different kind of brokenness is addressed in “Devising Out of Fear,” written by Sam Gilstrap and performed by Gilstrap, the ensemble and, ever so gently, the audience. An artist named Sam wrestles what it means to be an artist. Some of his quandaries are timeless, others feel particular to an even more gnarly post-pandemic economy. His compatriots in the arts, the ensemble, won’t leave him alone about what’s not working in the piece. They also won’t leave him alone — which might be one of the best takeaways from this, the 27th installment of “FEED”: that community matters and that we can come out of this harrowing slalom together.

“Hotter Than Egypt”: Written by Yussef El Guindi. Directed by Chris Coleman. Featuring Gareth Saxe, Wasim No’Mani, Ani Djirdjirian, Kate MacCluggage and James Rana. At the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, 14th and Curtis. Through March 12. or 303-893-4100.

“FEED Après”: Written by Amanda Berg Wilson, Peter Trinh, Jessica Austgen, Felice Locker and Sam Gilstrap. Directed by Amanda Berg Wilson. Featuring Wilson, chef Bob Sargent, Maggie Tisdale, Gilstrap, Jason Maxwell, Joan Brummer-Holden, McPherson Horle, Nika Garcia and Bill Kopper. At the Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. Through March 5,

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