At first, The Talented Ones seems like it's going to be a straightforward realist drama. In a kitchen with granite countertops and shiny appliances, Cindy (Khanh Doan) chops vegetables while she and Rick (Heath Koerschgen) wait for Cindy's husband, Omar (John San Nicolas), to arrive for their dinner party. A familiar love-triangle dynamic quickly becomes apparent: Cindy tells a flirty Rick that she and Omar are going through a rough patch. Omar is a struggling writer, so Cindy has to defer her dreams of becoming a dancer so one of them has a job that can actually pay the mortgage.
But it doesn't take long before things get weird. During her conversation with Rick, a ringing drone plays over the theater's speakers, and a spotlight forms on Cindy. Lights turn on behind the wall that extends above the kitchen set, revealing it to be a screen. A dancer (Madeleine Tran), Cindy's fantasy self, appears on the platform behind the screen. "When I dance, it's like a whole other me is switched on," Cindy says as she and the dancer spread their arms in unison.
A new work by Seattle playwright Yussef El Guindi, The Talented Ones deals with subject matter that could potentially seem pretty heavy. Both first-generation U.S. citizens, Cindy and Omar feel an immense pressure to make up for their immigrant parents' sacrifices with their success. "We're the ones who have to prove that it was all worth it," Cindy tells Rick.
Although The Talented Ones isn't exactly surreal or absurdist, it's just offbeat enough to be unexpectedly funny and bizarre in moments that could easily seem dark. That's due as much to El Guindi's script as it is San Nicolas' performance—as aloof Omar, he manages to be equally deadpan and charismatic.
When Omar finally shows up for dinner, Cindy and Rick are on the verge of making out. But it's not clear whether Omar caught them in the act, because he comes through the door rambling about writer's block. It seems aimless until the analogy between his and Cindy's relationship lands. "If this is what I love, how could that love fuck me over?" he says, looking at Rick and Cindy.
Realizing they've been caught, Rick goes on a defensive rant. Omar doesn't argue back, sitting on a kitchen stool and listening calmly while munching on some celery.
As the plot becomes more chaotic and darkly funny, the play starts to feel like an over-the-top parody instead of a realist drama in earnest—the first act ends on a cliffhanger and with a few literal knife wounds.
But its politics are sincere. In a flashback to the citizenship ceremony where Omar and Cindy met, the kitchen set is hidden behind a sarcastically large American flag that collapses into their outstretched arms at the end of the scene. Then there's Rick, a white dude who doesn't understand why the American dream isn't as attainable for everyone else as it is for him. His vision of success is "ordinary shit done the right way:" a life with two cars and a couple kids. "I don't need a huge patio, but a backyard pool would be nice," he tells Cindy.
The political tensions in the play never reach a full resolution. But even though it's frank and unromantic, The Talented Ones' worldview still manages to be kind of beautiful—knife wounds and all.
SEE IT: The Talented Ones plays at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., artistsrep.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Sunday, 2 pm Sunday, through May 21. Additional shows noon Wednesday, May 10, 7:30 pm Tuesday, May 16, and 2 pm Saturday, May 20. $25-$50.