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REVIEW: “Closely Related Keys” — International City Theatre

Updated: Sep 1, 2021

Winner! Best World Premiere Play!

Now in their 36th season, International City Theatre proudly presents their return to the stage with the hard-hitting drama, “Closely Related Keys,” a story about family conflict and clashing cultures, written by multiple award-winning Los Angeles based playwright Wendy Graf (“No Word in Guyanese for Me;” “Leipzig;” “Exit Wounds” — First Place Gold Medallion Winner Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle New Play Initiative).

This profoundly engaging evening of theater, which parallels some very provocative and timely subject matters currently challenging us today, has a performance schedule of August 27th through September 12th at the Beverly O'Neill Theater in Long Beach.

The show stars Oscar Best (NAACP Theater Award for “Blood Knot” — Malibu Playhouse) as Charlie; Sydney A. Mason (“Safe Harbor” — Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble) as Julia; Mehrnaz Mohammadi (“Sand Moon” — Son of Semele) as Neyla; Nick Molari (“The Secret in Their Wings — Coeurage Theatre Company) as Ron; and Adrian Mohamad Tafesh (making his California theatrical debut) as Tariq.

Directed by Ovation Nominee and NAACP Theater Award-winner Saundra McClain (“Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Flyin’ West”), the play is centered on an African-American hard-working professional named Julia (Ms. Mason), who is living in New York City post-9/11. It is now 2010, before the capture of Osama Bin Laden, and Julia has pushed her feelings about the event to the wayside as she works her way up in her career.

However, every belief that she has ever held is now impugned when she is thrown by a surprise visit from her estranged father Charlie (Mr. Best), who rather bluntly reveals that she has an unknown Iraqi younger sister from a previous relationship while working there as an engineer in the 1980s, long presumed dead along with her mother, yet with whom he has just made contact on Facebook.

Graf, an award-winning Jewish playwright whose plays have been produced nationally and internationally, has proven herself quite accomplished at tackling issues such as this within a solid dramatic context, and she is working here with important issues of identity, guilt and tolerance in both a political and psychological purport. Her narrative builds up a rather bracing head of suspense as circumstances are gradually revealed.

“...What is different about this play, I suppose, is what I've learned about Iraq and the American movement, the ones left behind," Ms. Graf says in a recent interview with Rose Desena. "Preconceived notions of right and wrong. Before writing this play Iraq was just a headline or short video on the Evening News. You don't think of the human faces behind it. Then you start to ask yourself: why didn't I ever know about this? Why didn't I pay more attention?"

She goes on to say, "the play challenges the audience as well as the characters to confront their own xenophobia. As you sit in the audience and watch the play unfold, you will be asked: how much do I hold onto these preconceived stereotypes about these people?"

Julia, the protagonist of the play, is single, and an up-and-coming Ivy League-educated attorney who lives for her job. Smart, ambitious and happy to sacrifice her personal life for professional advancement, she’s one of those corporate control freaks who believes she should be able to subjugate the world with her smartphone.

Unfortunately, her carefully constructed life begins to crumble when she finally meets her half-sister Neyla (Ms. Mohammadi), a classical violinist who has fled Iraq to audition for Julliard.

Julia, on the other hand, suspects there is more to the story, and is convinced her father is being played by an imposter, possibly a terrorist. Nevertheless, unbidden, the hijab-clad Neyla arrives on the doorstep of Julia's Gramercy Park apartment, violin case in tow, seeking not merely asylum and refuge but also pursuing an obscure agenda. Side stories begin to emerge. Graf's fresh spin on racial and cultural relations gives each of its characters their own voice and point of view as they navigate in a world that has become interconnected on every level.

Ms. Mason plays Julia with the frenzied air of someone burying themselves in work to avoid more painful feelings. Even the furtive romantic tryst she’s having with Ron (Mr. Moleri), a fellow shark from her law office, is conducted with the brutal efficiency of a weekly business meeting. Their passion is slotted between appointments and kept under wraps so as not to affect how they’re seen by co-workers at their law practice.

Working under intense round-the-clock pressure, Julia remains warily put-upon, almost hostile, determined not to let herself be associated with the dubious Islamic figure who has entered her life under mysterious and threatening auspices. Little by little, however, the barriers subside, and it begins to look in some ways more like a story about similarities.

The title itself, “Closely Related Keys,” is actually a musical reference which means “to share many common tones.” On the surface, Julia and Neyla are culturally and religiously different. When their father’s overbearing plan of creating a new makeshift family backfires, both Julia and Neyla rebel and their deep-seated issues of abandonment, which both experienced, rises to the surface. Julia’s strenuous efforts at secrecy was compromising her job, her personal life and even her own tenuous sense of self, so sturdily propped up by her professional commitments.

Their moment of acceptance was a chance for them to find closure, move on with a new life, forgive and set themselves free. It was a chance to have the family that has always been denied them. Indeed, the two sisters in this story are more alike than they realize. Julia and Neyla slowly come to realize they have so much in common as sisters, from their acute hurt and grievance as much as their shared paternity.

How they find their connection is the universal exception — music. Singing together, dancing around the apartment, they discover that they truly are like two keys on a piano residing in different places on the scale but nevertheless able to create harmony. It brings them together. Just as we should be as we mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11, while our story ironically resonates almost the identical challenges we face together now on the political scene.

The action, setting and direction for this gem of a show is remarkable. The actors clearly show a range of emotions that is unexpected, and the scenes are seamless and cohesive. Deserved praise to the cast as well as the creative team, which includes Set Designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, Lighting Designer Donny Jackson, Costume Designer Kim DeShazo, Sound Designer Dave Mickey, and Prop Designer Patty Briles. Casting is by Michael Donovan CSA and Richie Ferris CSA. Production Stage Manager is John Freeland, Jr., Artistic Director/Producer is caryn desai, and Publicity is Lucy Pollak.

Performances for “Closely Related Keys” are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM and Sundays at 2PM, Aug 27 — Sept 12. Tickets are $49-52, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 330 E. Seaside Way, Long Beach. Seating will be socially distanced and masks are required on each performance. Approximately 105 minutes with no intermission. For ticket purchase, please see

Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report

Photo Credits: Andrew Hofstetter & Donny Jackson


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