Goodman Theatre presents the world premiere of Layalina by Martin Yousif Zebari, directed by Sivan Battat. This play is broad in scope, tackling a family’s experiences in Iraq in the early 2000s and in the United States twenty years later as the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the world. While the premise is unique, the execution fails to deliver, and Layalina is overall an underwhelming experience.
The first act takes place in Baghdad in 2003. The Ibrahim family lives amidst chaos and tries desperately to find a safe way out. Sahir and Layal are recently married and scheduled to leave for the United States, while Mazin is conscripted into service and Karima and Yasir hit a snag with their visa due to Yasir’s government job. During the second act, the same actors reshuffle to play different characters in the same family twenty years later. Now Layal lives in Skokie with Yousif and Marwa, who are frequently visited by neighbor and in-law Amin. Multiple conflicts ensue as the family seeks to reconcile their past and learn to understand one another in the present.
Credit where credit is due: this is a play that presents a perspective rarely offered in American theatre, that of an Iraqi American family that includes a majority of queer members. The trouble is that the characters fall flat, and with them the whole play, which is much more character- than plot-driven. The second act is more engaging, as the more contemporary characters ring truer than their older counterparts. The first act is weighed down by a lot of discussion of logistics as the characters get into the weeds of how different members may or may not get out of Iraq. Parallels between the two acts fail to blossom fully; a kiss in Act One mirrors a kiss in Act Two, but the lack of interest of one party in the first act prevents the second kiss from feeling like a moment of healing or liberation.
In addition to the storytelling, the acting is also lackluster. For whatever reason, most of the performances fail to extend beyond the realm of facial expressions and the occasional raising of voices. It was difficult to care about any of the characters, which made it difficult to care about the play overall. Even elements that should have been totally endearing, like the newlywed energy between Sahir and Layal, failed to deliver. The best moment in the entire play is when a tragedy strikes at the end of the first act and, very briefly, the play moves from realism to a more expressionist format, which really worked. Unfortunately, instead of leaning into this, the play returns back to its realistic state for the rest of the show.
One thing Layalina does have going for it is a gorgeous set. Scenic design by casaboyce studio is a visual feast, incorporating geometric designs and lush colors to create two separate but connected homes in two different parts of the world.
In the end, what sounds like a promising new work simply does not align with the overall quality I’ve come to expect from the Goodman Theatre. Here’s hoping for more new works with queer and BIPOC themes that are stronger in execution.
Location: The Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL 60601
Dates: March 3 – April 2, 2023
Tickets: $15 –$50. Available at the Goodman Theatre website or by phone at 312-443-3800.
All photos by Liz Lauren.