What starts as a simple game of dice explodes into rage, torture, and revenge in Shesh Yak
, now at Rattlestick Playwright's Theatre. And it's not because someone lost a bet.
In Syrian-born writer/performer Laith Nakli's new drama, Jameel (Zarif Kabier) invites Syrian expatriate Haytham (Nakli) to stay with him during a visit. The two are cordial at first, but everything changes when they play backgammon. Jameel hears Haytham call for "shesh yak
", the best opening roll in the game, and the use of those particular words confirms Jameel's suspicion that they have met before. In a flash, he begins brutally punishing Haytham for a long-ago offense.
But while this grisly scene is rooted in the Syrian crisis, it takes place in our own backyard. The play is set in a Manhattan apartment, and Nakli chose the locale to comment on the story's universal theme. "It's about the cycle of revenge," he says. "It's about how violence only makes more violence."
It's a subject he personally understands. "We're trained to see a conflict like (Syria's) as good guys versus bad guys." he says. "But there are no good guys. The only good guy is my uncle who went to work and had a mortar shell fall on him."
Given his background in acting and screenwriting, Nakli never thought he'd write a script for Rattlestick, let alone co-star in it. "I had the idea for this political satire movie, set in the way distant future," he says. "I talked to (director) Bruce (McCarty) about it, and he said it was a great idea for a play."
McCarty adds, "I encouraged him to start writing. I woke up the next day with thirty pages in my inbox."
Despite the show's brutal displays, McCarty does his best to keep the play in line with Nakli's intentions. "The play's built on an impulse for revenge on the surface level, but underneath the surface, it's about reconciliation and helping free each other from the past," the director says. "I held on to that---finding the humanity."
Nakli even sees that theme in the play's title. Shesh yak
means a roll of six and one, which leaves him pondering, "Is it best because of the six, or because of the one? The strong or the weak? The many or the individual?"
"In the end," he adds, "the important thing is they come together."
Sander Gusinow is a freelance arts writer and playwright based in New York
Photo by Sandra Coudert