Aida Leventaki, left, and Finty Kelly star in Eris Khouzam's “Booze.”
By Orla O’Sullivan
“Booze” is far too good of a play to have been written by a 23-year-old and in just two weeks.
But that’s how it is with the site-specific show, which has just opened at the Churchill bar in Manhattan and will run until at least the end of August.
Playwright Eris Khouzam, a student of George Heslin’s at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, is directed by her teacher in what is her second full-length play, following award-winning monologues and a book entitled “Yfsma.”
Heslin, though known to Echo readers as the creative force behind the Origin Theatre and its 1st Irish festival, has directed some 60 plays in recent years outside of Origin. Meanwhile, the Academy’s Madison Avenue mansion has served as a 1st Irish venue, proving a good fit in 2016, for example, for vignettes from Oscar Wilde.
“Booze” takes place very near the Academy, above the main bar on 45 East 28th St. named for the famous war-time prime minister.
The actors move around the intimate setting, perhaps stopping at your table to shake salt on their hands before doing tequila shots during a wild night.
Fortunately, there’s a lot more to “Booze” than boasting about hard living as the name and the press materials imply. The play foreshadows that the two central characters—aged 16 on the night we meet them—will have a lifelong problem with the demon drink.
More importantly, for the purposes of the play, drink is a social lubricant that allows two people to connect who otherwise would not. As the same sex, age and nationality, troubled in their ways, clever, keen to party, and both, as one says “sarcastic c***s,” Morgan (Aida Leventaki) and Emma Harriet (Finty Kelly) have quite a bit in common. (Strong language and colloquialism advisory in effect.)
However, Emma Harriet’s double-barreled name hints at how class divides them—not that there’s anything subtle to how EH puts Morgan in her place when first addressing her, as they stand in line waiting to get into a nightclub.
“I doubt they’ll let you in dressed like that. You’re dressed for a night out in Tooting, not the Angel Club in Leicester Square.” (Some readers may recall bouncers in Ireland automatically rejecting men who wore white socks.)
Morgan, who is from a notorious working-class part of Glasgow, quickly put the Londoner from Primrose Hill in her place: a headlock. And so, after an apology, a friendship was borne—intense, and destined to last just one night.
The Syrian-British playwright noted in a program note that she wanted to “explore the class divide in the UK” and for “a U.S. audience to really get a taste of the UK… and vice versa.”
This she achieves in a textured work, albeit without epiphanies or grand conclusions—except, perhaps, that class and addictions are hard to eradicate.
Structurally, the play does build to a climax and has some novel elements (flash-forwards, rather than flash-backs). The girls have a climactic close brush with the law. You could easily imagine, had it gone wrong, how class would kick-in to ensure that Morgan was scapegoated as a bad influence on respectable EH.
That police scene is one of the best, in which Heslin brings a lot to the text. Using scant resources, such as flashlights and having the girls back-to-back, turning nervously as two policemen encircle them, barking questions, the director really builds the tension.
Like the play, generally, it’s also often frequently funny. The U.S.-styled cop, especially, poses inanely intrusive questions. The British-styled bobby (Finlay Paul) parts mildly with, “Don’t forget to text your mums.”
Khouzam, like the others in the production, is a Brit in the U.S., and the broad sweep of her play touches on several contemporary talking points, from aggressive policing in the U.S. to refugees. The Me-Too movement is also mentioned after an encounter with an entitled Oxford student, James Evans.
The three men in the strong cast play multiple roles, with Alastair Don’s most memorable as the “gaylien” videogame geek.
The ink has barely dried on this very British script, now enjoying its premiere in the US.
After this run, Heslin hopes to keep it going as a once-a-week affair at the Churchill. Despite the name, the bar has an Irish owner—and a recording of a wartime broadcast from the PM himself piped into the bathrooms, to add to the dramatic effect.
“Booze; a night you can’t remember but will never forget,” by Eris Khouzam, directed by George Heslin, will run at the Churchill bar 45 East 28th St. through Aug. 28.