Yasmin Yaacob made her debut as a playwright in March 1999 with A Flight Delayed – a light, upbeat romantic comedy in the tradition of a whole slew of sparkling, witty “romcoms” from Hollywood that feature lovable, mildly neurotic couples portrayed by the likes of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Local theatergoers have to settle for Zahim Albakri and Ida Nerina, but I don’t hear any serious complaints.
But on the Tuesday I caught A Flight Delayed, both Zahim and Ida (as Jeff and Rin, a yuppie couple bound for New Zealand on vacation) took a while to snap into character. For some reason, neither of them seemed totally comfortable with their lines. Perhaps Zahim’s double role as actor AND director left him too little time to fully become Jeff Ahmad (brave new Malaysian workaholic adman, divorced and now going unsteady with a vivacious but emotionally insecure girlfriend). At any rate Zahim and Ida are both pretty enough, and experienced enough, to win over any audience within 10 minutes of walking onstage.
Actually I almost missed the flight: I hadn’t reserved a seat and the Actors Studio Theatre was packed to the rafters. That in itself is the best review any production can hope for. When people feel adequately entertained they’ll tell their friends about it. Still, a wee bit of nitpicking won’t hurt.
Okay, so the plot isn’t all that thick. But Yasmin Yaacob’s flair for dialogue lends the whole concoction the easy appeal of a strawberry sundae with whipped cream topping. Never mind that strawberry isn’t your typical Malaysian flavor; but then Yasmin isn’t your typical Malaysian either, having spent seven impressionable years in New Zealand while reading law. Her acquired cosmopolitanism is reflected in the play’s contemporary concerns. Affluence is what makes all the difference: Jeff and Rin are Melayu Baru yuppies from Bangsar who can afford to fly off to Kiwiland for some fun and fornication without having to dodge dirty minded goon squads from the Religious Department.
Here’s a totally modern, unmarried young Malay couple whose issues center around career, emotional commitment, and trust; they’ve outgrown the medieval concepts of khalwat and zina (close proximity and fornication are punishable offences in Muslim Malaysia under the Syariah laws). Even when a tudung-wearing traditional fellow passenger begins to poke her Melayu Lama nose into Rin’s affairs, she stops short of asking to see her marriage certificate.
Since the action takes place in a bustling international airport where all types converge, there’s plenty of scope for brilliant cameo performances from veterans like Patrick Teoh, who plays a burnt out high flying salesman with a mid-life crisis; and movie doyenne Azean Irdawaty, whose down to earth portrayal of Puan Fatimah, a funky makcik proved to be a real winner with the crowd.
Adriani Wahjanto, a promising newcomer to local theater, did a commendable job as Deena, Jeff’s sexy college chum; Ryan Lee Bhaskaran, at 12 the youngest in the cast, breezed through his part as the apple of Puan Fatimah’s eye; and Nell Ng charmed everybody as a wisecrack and toilet paper dispensing airport janitor.
In fact, the whole ensemble was pretty energetic and fairly disciplined: a testimony to Zahim Albakri’s sound directorial instincts and Mac Chan’s fast paced lighting. The frenetic, choreographed movements (by Lianna Leong) were effectively and efficiently used to change the tempo and rearrange the elegant set (by Adeline Ooi).
Ironically, the pacing went flabby only in several scenes where Zahim was interacting with Ida. Somehow the chemistry between them wasn’t entirely working, though it’s difficult to put one’s finger on exactly why certain exchanges didn’t quite come alive. I’ve heard reports that Iskandar Najmuddin did exceptionally well as Jeff in last year’s production; perhaps that’s why Zahim had trouble creating his own version of Jeff.
A Flight Delayed may not be the most original of plays, but it certainly has enough box-office appeal and wacky sophistication to warrant a movie version. Or at least several more extended runs. Already it has been included in the program of the Singapore Arts Festival 2000 in June and I don’t believe the selection was made entirely on the basis that the action is set in Changi Airport.
24 February 2000