Iranian refugee Yasmina and Iranian-American Sam, the main characters in “Yasmina’s Necklace” — currently making its New Jersey premiere in the Premiere Stages series at Kean University in Union, with direction by Kareem Fahmy — are burdened with some of the most annoyingly meddling (though well-meaning) parents I’ve seen since “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
“We know what’s best for you,” says Sam’s father bluntly, attempting to set him up with Yasmina.
“Do you floss?,” askes Yasmina’s father, a dentist, when he meets Sam for the first time.
But “Yasmina’s Necklace” is not “My Big Fat Iranian Wedding.” Yes, it has elements of romantic comedy. But even though the humor can be broad, the love story is sweet and subtle. And it is also, in some ways, an intense psychological drama, with flashbacks that evoke the turmoil in recent years in the Middle East.
That may sound like a jumble, but playwright Rohina Malik blends it all into a seamless whole that makes for a moving and memorable night at the theater.
It’s set in Chicago, more or less in the present (the program doesn’t specify a year). Yasmina (Layan Elwazani) — a cashier who paints in her spare time, just for herself (she has no intentions of selling her works) — wants to start a non-profit organization for other refugees. She’s 34 and unmarried, much to the chagrin of her father, Musa (Haythem Noor).
The birth name of Sam (Cesar J. Rosado) is Abdul Samee, but he has changed it in order to get ahead in the corporate world. His father Ali (Eliud Kauffman) is Iranian and his mother Sara (Socorro Santiago) is Puerto Rican, and Sam has grown up in the United States.
Sam considers himself, culturally, a “salad,” because he is of mixed heritage. He has recently been divorced from his American wife, and his parents are desperate for him to find someone else.
So Sam’s parents conspire, with Musa and Kareem (Robert Manning Jr.), the friendly imam at the mosque they all attend, to get Yasmina and Sam together. (The parents are all old-fashioned enough to like the idea of an arranged marriage). But the two potential mates are resistant.
Yasmina considers herself “broken” by the wartime horrors she’s lived through, and swears she will never marry. Sam is still devastated by his divorced, and feels he need more time before he’ll be able to be in another relationship.
Also, Yasmina feels that becoming to Americanized would betray her heritage, while Sam fears that being identified as partly Iranian will hold him back in the United States (and has, in fact, suffered from discrimination).
Can they complete each other?
It doesn’t go well when they first meet. But the good-hearted Sam agrees to help the driven Yasmina with her non-profit, and they stay in touch. And eventually, of course, an attraction does develop.
I won’t say anything more about that, except that there are many more twists to come, and we eventually learn, in harrowing detail, exactly what happened to Yasmina in the past.
The ending is neither of the happily-ever-after variety nor without hope — which is good. Sugarcoating things would be inappropriate in a story as honest, on many levels, as this one is. Yet Malik, Elwazani and Rosado make Yasmina and Sam so likeable that we really do want things to work out between them.
Premiere Stages will present “Yasmina’s Necklace” at the Bauer Boucher Theater Center at Kean University in Union through Sept. 22. Visit premierestagesatkean.com.
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