“Hound Dog,” a play with music, evokes Elvis, Joni Mitchell and “Ramy” the Hulu series about an Egyptian-American immigrant family in New Jersey (the last unintentionally) — which provide the main pleasures in a world premiere that needs work.
In this play written by Melis Aker, a character we know only as Hound Dog (Ellena Eshraghi) is a musician who has returned after college in the U.S. to her home in Ankara, Turkey, feeling numbed and alienated. She is estranged from her father Baba (Laith Nakli), and distant even from her best friend Ayse (Olivia AbiAssi.) She is ambivalent about her future; she isn’t sure she wants to accept her admission to the Royal Academy of Music in London.
We eventually figure out that Hound Dog hasn’t fully processed her grief at the death of her mother a year earlier, and is also probably experiencing culture shock after her years away. The problem with “Hound Dog” the play is that the playwright doesn’t seem to have fully processed Hound Dog’s grief and culture shock either, which makes it difficult for the audience to figure out how we’re supposed to react, or even what’s going on.
This is especially true during a series of scenes that take up much of the 95-minute running time, in which Hound Dog travels in a hallucinogenic journey through her past, which may be happening just in her mind. We see scenes of her with her college therapist, and her college musicology professor, her audition at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and then further back, to the year 2000, when her father, who is known (or at least wants to be known) as Baba Cool, shares a burger with her from the first-ever Burger King in Ankara. She then travels to her parents’ past – it’s suddenly 1979, and she is her mother while her father is dancing to rock n roll music, and so thrilled with it that he talks back to a cop who warns him about playing foreign music, and is beaten for his defiance.
During her dream of her audition, one of the auditioners describes her music as “It’s like if Joni Mitchell had a bit of an orgy with a few Turkish folk musicians, and then had a very confused baby.” Obviously Hound Dog is distorting through her own ambivalence and insecurity what the administrator is likely to have said. But the seven songs that punctuate the play, written by Melis Aker & the Lazours (brothers Daniel and Patrick Lazour), and sung exquisitely by Sahar Milani, do have a Joni Mitchell vibe, perhaps filtered through a Turkish sensibility; if they are lyrical songs rather than theater songs (don’t advance or illuminate the story in any discernible way), they were pleasant interludes.
Baba’s love of Western popular culture has its fullest expression in his love of Elvis Presley. And we see his impersonation of the King complete with Queen Jean’s convincing costume, and it’s a delight.
I also like Frank J. Oliva’s set – two floors of weathered doors and shutters that occasionally open up for multicolored surprises.
The actors, many of whom portray multiple roles including members of the band called the Flaming Sultans, are varying degrees of wonderful, making what they can of roles that are often underwritten. The actor who stands out for me is Laith Nakli as Baba. But that’s probably because the Syrian-born actor and writer also portrays Uncle Naseem in “Ramy,” now in its third season. Like many of the characters in that terrific series, Naseem is feeling alienated and ambivalent; in his case, it’s not just because he is an immigrant; he is also gay, although he denies this, even to himself. He is not the only character who hasn’t fully processed his feelings. Neither has the main character Ramy Hassan (Ramy Youssuf, who also created the series, and co-writes many of the episodes.) It makes them come off like jerks more often than we would like. But the writing and the directing give us enough to help us understand why the characters act the way they do, even if the characters themselves don’t understand it.
At Greenwich House through November 5
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: Name your price ($7 minimum)
Written by Melis Aker
Music & Lyrics by Melis Aker & the Lazours
Directed by Machel Ross
Music direction and sound design by Avi Amon, set design by Frank J. Oliva, costume design by Qween Jean, lighting design by Tuçe Yasak
Cast: Olivia AbiAssi as Ayse, Ashley Baier as Flaming Sultan/Drums/Vocals, Ellena Eshraghi as Hound Dog, Mel Hsu as Flaming Sultan/Bass/Synth/Vocals, Matt Magnusson as Mr. Callahan, Sahar Milani as Lead Singer/Flaming Sultan, Laith Nakli as Baba, Jonathan Raviv as Yusuf, and Maya Sharpe as Flaming Sultan/Guitar/Vocals