Fiery actors shine despite lukewarm story in Marin Theatre Company’s ‘Hotter Than Egypt’

Scene from the play Hotter Than Egypt
Hannah Delon/Courtesy

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In Marin Theatre Company’s latest production, American couple Paul (Paul Morgan Stetler) and Jean (Jen Taylor) travel to Cairo to celebrate their 24th wedding anniversary. Yet when deep-seated problems in their marriage start to emerge, the root of their conflict is exposed: Paul used to think Jean was “hotter than Egypt,” but not anymore. So begins a deep dive into waning marriage, aging and self-esteem, alongside a hunt for self-discovery and exploration of a new country.

“Hotter Than Egypt” is a commendable investigation of the nuances of the emotional tug-of-war called love, though occasionally choppy, on-the-nose writing kills much-needed subtlety. Luckily, the excellent performances from its actors — who understand the complex subject matter a little better than the script — ensure that curtains fall on a play well worth watching.

Tensions heighten in “Hotter Than Egypt” when Paul and Jean find their relationship crisis intertwined with Seif (Wasim No’mani) and Maha (Naseem Etemad), their young, newly engaged tour guides. As Paul and Jean’s marriage shows signs of crumbling, Seif and Maha’s concerns regarding love are further complicated by the difficult, limiting future that seems to await them if they were to stay in Egypt.

The play really starts to heat up during a messy conversation-turned-argument between Paul and Jean after a rough day of sailing down the Nile. After Jean lets out pent-up anxiety with a bloodcurdling scream on the peaceful river, the frustrated couple return to their hotel room itching for confrontation. In this tense scene, nothing is left unturned, and the two engage in a passionate discourse about their relationship, past and present. The two discuss their inability to fulfill each other’s needs and solemnly acknowledge the picturesque life that they have built together — a life that seems close to an end as long-hidden infidelity comes into the picture.

This conversation is one of the most critical — if not the most important — turning points for the plot. Playwright Yussef El Guindi does an excellent job of reminding characters and viewers that a failing marriage is still built upon a long history of pleasant times and fond memories — in Paul and Jean’s case, a whopping 24 years worth. El Guindi writes a powerful, head-spinning back-and-forth between the two leads, his dialogue marking an impressive feat in spite of the talk’s disorienting disjointedness.

Though the lack of organization in Paul and Jean’s argument is structurally realistic, this worsens the effect of some unrealistic dialogue. The two sometimes jump to ridiculous conclusions which turn out to be true, and long-kept, life-changing secrets are given up a little too easily. The couple’s problems are also unloaded a bit too quickly; the scene would have benefitted from a bit more hesitation and implication from the characters, as they discover painful truths and have tragic revelations.

Seif and Maha are also deeply likable and intriguing characters, but viewers are left wishing that there was more to learn about them. Their relationship is challenged to a similar degree, especially due to the obstacles ahead of them due to life in Egypt. It would have been ideal to learn more about these characters and their cultural barriers, which in turn would have made their relationship with Paul and Jean more meaningful as well. Despite this, actors No’mani and Etemad give fantastic performances by bringing depth to their characters through their zealous and expressive mannerisms.

The acting in “Hotter Than Egypt” is the play’s best feature. Though some of the lines may be slightly disorienting, the emotions behind them ring true. Paul, Jean, Seif and Maha are all thrown into emotional turmoil, and the cast untangles their dilemma’s complexity in order to portray the conflict as messily, yet still as clearly as possible. Especially evocative due to the relatable and common nature of romantic conflicts, the polished performances of Stetler, Taylor, No’mani and Etemad make the play truly worth watching.

Although lacking some delicacy, “Hotter Than Egypt” at Marin Theatre Company boasts an extraordinary cast that satisfyingly tackles an ambitiously convoluted exploration of love.

Joy Diamond covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].