A Review of Invitation to a Marriage

After my interview with actor/writer Roland Uruci, I was eagerly anticipating the new production of his play Invitation to a Marriage. I finally had the chance to see it with my wife last night and it surpassed all my expectations. My wife Juliana is the most honest of critics, so the fact that she absolutely loved it too says a lot.

(There will be some spoilers ahead, so if you plan to see the show and want to be completely surprised by its content, bookmark this page and read my review later, otherwise, carry on.)

The tagline “an Albanian wedding where everything is arranged…even the bride and groom” sums up the plot of the show. It is a hilarious depiction of a new generation of Albanians in America trying to establish a life for themselves, while dealing with the traditions and European culture of their parents. It is a universal story that works really well through the able guidance of Uruci, who proves his multi-faceted talents by not only writing, producing, and directing the show, but also acting in it as well. As he did in The Resistible Rise of Fatlinda Paloka, he brings strength and perfect comic timing to the role of one of the fathers, Imer Begu. Seeing Roland on stage again was a nice surprise. The program credits the part to “Alban Kurkushi” (“Albanian Nobody,” very clever.)

The writing is deft throughout, full of sidesplitting humor, but soaked in great ideas and themes, such as the contrast between physical attraction and the romantic notion of finding a soul mate. The strongest moral of the story is the concept of “besa” (honor). All the characters throughout the play at some level or another address the question of what it means to have it. Some claim to have it, but their actions contradict their words. Some seem to not have much of it or faith in it, but they prove to be the greatest examples of the true, noble meaning of “besa.”

The plot unfolds on a unit-set that the actors use as the setting for three different apartments in America. Uruci does a commendable job of staging the action to create a seamless progression of the story from place to place – at one time actors share the space, acting out scenarios that take place in two different locations, and it comes across as a masterfully executed bit of blocking, as if the audience was watching a split screen movie scene instead of a live performance on a shared stage.

Arranged marriages might seem like an old-fashioned, alien concept for a play set in modern times, but Uruci has written a comedy that rings true and bridges those diverse worlds – the young, contemporary generation with so many advantages and opportunities available to them that their parents probably never had, yet are still struggling with different but equally intimidating fears and emotional burdens, and the older generation still bound by tradition, still holding on desperately to those notions of honor and integrity that they don’t want to lose as society seems to constantly change around them.  Even beneath all the jokes, it's a powerful contrast.

Emira Berisha and Martin Markaj play Leila Bektashi and Besnik Begu, two young Albanian-American dreamers who were betrothed to each other by their parents in the “old country” at a very young age. Leila dreams of becoming an architect. Besnik’s future is a little more foggy, but like so many of his peers, his heart is in the right place, and even though he may not know exactly what he wants, he knows he wants something – he is restless, like a caged bird, waiting for a chance to be free, but not knowing how to achieve that freedom.

Both Leila and Besnik oppose the idea of an arranged marriage, but they initially go along with their parents’ prodding and agree to at least meet their never-before-seen fiancĂ©. What happens next is a farcical explosion as their two families collide with volcanic force, with the parents spending more time measuring each other up than letting the future bride and groom get to know each other. Leila and Besnik (especially Besnik who has become smitten with Leila at first sight) do their best to keep the evening from becoming a complete disaster.

Uruci has done a fine job with casting – all the actors really bring a lot of wonderful creativity and nuances to their roles. Haxhire Capri-Redzovic does a good job as Besnik’s down-to-earth mother, Safeta Begu. She is a character contrasted well by Leila’s mom, Bardha Bektashi, played to perfection by Anisa Dema. Her interactions with her husband, Maksim, brought to life by Besnik Shabani, are some of the many highlights of the show. Bujan Rugova brings additional laughs, as well as a few nicely conveyed serious moments, to the role of Arsim Begu, Besnik’s younger brother. Jimmy Rugova almost steals the show as the uproarious, womanizing superintendant Luan Krosikuq. One of my favorite performances was by Lumi Subasic as Angie Palmer, Leila’s American roommate – she’s a great addition to the story, enabling the audience to connect with someone from the “outside,” showing both how out of fashion some of the old customs might appear to be especially to those not familiar with them, but also reinforcing how important some of those timeless ideas of “besa” still are, no matter the culture.

After the show, my wife and I had a little debate about the ending.  Without giving too much away, I leaned on the side that it was pitch perfect and she thought it might have been too sudden and unrealistic (and she used the word "corny," but as Roland Uruci mentioned to me during our interview, comedies need a happy, feel-good ending, and I agree).  During intermission, he mentioned to me that he has hopes to eventually adapt the play to film, and he has additional scenes in his head to flesh out the story.  I think one way to make the great play even better would be to have at least one more scene in the end that shows Leila and Besnik talking to each other alone, so we get to see those sparks fly between them without the distractions of their families, leading up to that excellent moment between the two of them before the final curtain.

Invitation to a Marriage is playing at the Producers Club in Manhattan, Wednesdays through Sundays until October 9, 2011, (8 p.m. each night, except Sundays, which have 3 p.m. matinees). Space is limited, so reserve your tickets in advance at marriage.tix@gmail.com.

Enjoy the show!