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Love in a Spider Hole

A powerful war zone drama gets the sex too silly.

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Plays set in the Middle East are as rare in these parts as falafel and mosques used to be -- something too exotic for Midwestern sensibilities. But the world evolves and tastes broaden, and the new play How His Bride Came to Abraham by former Kansas City resident Karen Sunde is having its first fully staged production at the Unicorn Theatre. How His Bride Came to Abraham features Michael Stock as Abe, a wounded Israeli officer, and Alyssa Cartwright as Sabra, a Palestinian who finds Abe incapacitated -- his foot reduced to a bloody pulp -- on a hill in Lebanon. The expected arc of the play -- animosity, then sex and then more animosity -- unfolds with a mix of both credible tension and mystifying logic.

The winning actors play their foreign roles with convincing accents (at least to this inexpert listener) and convincing (and divergent) political loyalties. Allusions to their families humanize them and set them at odds. And with the aid of a marvelous lighting scheme designed by Jeffrey Cady (one that reflects a desert sunrise and a volatile battlefield with equal credibility) and the muted rat-a-tat-tat of the skirmishes nearby provided by sound designer Glen Dunzweiler, you can feel the creep of war on the back of your neck.

It's too bad that spell is broken time and again by Sunde's script. Early in the play, after Abe nearly breaks Sabra's arm and then pokes a rifle against her head, the two appear in Sabra's hideaway like Jesus and a disciple. She's using what's left of her water supply to wash his wounded foot without any connecting scene that would logically move her from feeling victimized to expressing tenderness. Later, she wraps the wound to his compliments, assuring him that seeing the mangled aftermath of heavy fighting isn't new to her. Then she asks, with the wide-eyed innocence of a child, "Have you seen people die?" Would we not assume that both have, several times?

The schizoid manner in which the two move from enemies to lovers is also unearned. After they've kissed fairly passionately, she retreats like a scared virgin, prompting him to say, "Don't be afraid of me." (It's been established that she's not.) She convinces him to have sex, which is certainly fraught with several meanings. But director Cynthia Levin has a rare lapse in the manner in which they screw -- a slow-motion rodeo ride with flailing arms that is weirdly off the tone of the story and unintentionally comical.

Georgianna Londre's costumes are convincingly grimy and sweat-stained, and Gary Mosby's set -- the hill where Abe is found and its entrails, where Sabra has carved out her lair -- seems naturally of the earth (though it could also serve as the set to a Late Night Theatre version of Gilligan's Island). Both exemplify a rigorous effort to make the play jump away from its stage-bound theatricality. And given the latest news reports, a chilling moment (that won't be given away here) should remind viewers immediately of difficulties in the region. Only Sunde's script keeps the play from making a stronger statement about the current situation.

There is a mournful coda, though. Sunde has said that when she began writing it more than a decade ago, she was convinced it would be a period piece -- with peace shortly at hand. The play shows us all the stitches of that lie.

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