Inana may be a world premiere, but it's no world-class play

Inana is set in a shabby London hotel room, where the director of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, having done all he could to secure the treasures in his care, has fled with the bride he acquired through an arrangement with her father, a young woman he barely knows. The action starts and ends before the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the much-publicized looting of the museum; we have since learned that while thousands of pieces are still missing, many others have been found or returned, although the pillaging of valuable archeological sites continues throughout the country.

While watching this world premiere, I had a hard time suspending disbelief. I didn't believe playwright Michele Lowe truly understood what it meant to be a contemporary Iraqi; I didn't believe the twists and turns of her plot; most important, I plain didn't believe that the people I saw on stage were real people. Although Piter Marek's intelligent performance makes the protagonist, Darius Shalid, somewhat convincing as a learned and dignified lover of antiquities, Darius's relationship with Shali, his wife, is baffling — and Lowe's device of providing reams of necessary exposition by having him give an endless, pleading monologue while she sits behind the closed door of the bathroom doesn't help. Actress Mahira Kakkar gives Shali the same look of wide-eyed surprise almost throughout, along with a curved and melodious intonation that makes every sentence sound like a question. Shali is less a person than a pastiche of all the images and ideas we have in this culture about Middle Eastern women. She's a timid creature from a rural village who's afraid to be left alone — but she's also a smart, spunky girl who put herself in danger by teaching other girls to read. She, personally, was one of the many female victims of the murderous Uday Hussein. She's the metaphorical incarnation of a goddess of both war and sex, and her union with Darius will teach him to broaden his antiquarian passions and understand that living human beings should be as fiercely cherished as ancient objects. You feel as if other stories are nudging at the text, from that of Scheherazade to Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran; when the goddess Inana is mentioned, you hear a low, portentous sound and half expect Indiana Jones to show up.

It's not that a lot of terrible things didn't happen to women — and, of course, to the entire population — under Saddam Hussein (although until the sanction years began in 1991, Iraqi women were among the most educated in the Middle East). What strains credulity is the idea that all these things would have happened to one woman, and that similar suffering has been visited on just about every other character seen or mentioned in Inana.

Even the smaller details are jarring. Why would someone as educated as Darius be confused by English food? Does he really believe there's nowhere to go in London on a Sunday night — including a thousand Arab restaurants — or is he lying to Shali? Set designer Vicki Smith has delivered the perfect replica of a London hotel room that's remained unchanged since the 1950s, and the light at the window, created by Ann G. Wrightson, is so authentic that it made me homesick. But what English waiter — no matter how eccentric — would barge into a hotel room tossing out words like "huzzah" and "smashing," and say "fuck" in front of a distinguished guest?

There are some mildly charming, poetic set pieces here about shades of color, and the big emotional scene at the end almost pays off. But watching this static play, I couldn't help thinking about the spiky, eccentric, highly individualized Iraqi women — from a sex-obsessed painter to an elderly exile to a little girl who inadvertently betrayed her father — of Heather Raffo's one-woman play, 9 Parts of Desire, and of the vitality of actress Karen Slack's portrayal of them in last season's Curious Theatre production. Lowe did a lot of research for Inana. What's missing is the imagination that brings fictive characters to life.