Four Actors in Search Of a Character at Guild Hall

The story of Youssef, an Egyptian surgeon who arrives in London at the play’s beginning seeking a new life
The four actors in “Angry Young Man” portray the same character, Youssef, as well as all the other characters in the play. Kneeling, left to right: Christopher Daftsios, Max Samuels, and Rami Margron. Standing: Nazli Sarpkaya. David Rogers

In Ben Woolf’s play “Angry Young Man,” which will have its American premiere Wednesday at Guild Hall, four actors, two women and two men, play the same character, Youssef, often within the same scene. Those four actors also take turns playing the other 11 characters, who range from an elderly woman with an Irish brogue to a towering thug named Bruno to a young refugee named Gjerg.

First produced at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2005 and winner of numerous awards at the 2013 Adelaide Festival in Australia, “Angry Young Man” is the story of Youssef, an Egyptian surgeon who arrives in London at the play’s beginning seeking a new life. 

The mistakes and mishaps that befall an emigrant from the Middle East to the West, including running afoul of white nationalists, being ripped off by a taxi driver, and being abducted and beaten by xenophobes, are an implicit comment on the obstacles faced by refugees. But Youssef’s plight is played not so much for sympathy as for laughs. Laced with physical comedy, the style of the play dates to “The Goon Show,” which ran on British radio from 1951 to 1960.

“ ‘The Goon Show’ led to ‘Beyond the Fringe,’ which in turn became ‘Monty Python,’ ” said Stephen Hamilton, the director of the production. “All were extended sketch comedies. What you see may be true and it may not be true. It may be stylized or it may be straight up. The play is a combination of that English ancestry, a bit of the Marx Brothers’ ‘Duck Soup,’ and a little bit of the Three Stooges.”

“The characters speak the stage directions. But in this case it’s four different actors as the same character telling the story. So all of a sudden we’re in a meta situation. Of course, the challenge there, because it is a very fast-moving narrative, is that the audience might ask, ‘Am I still listening to Youssef or am I listening to a different character?’ ”

To help the audience realize when an actor changes into a different character without any verbal cues, the director decided to use costume elements. Patrick wears a certain hat, for example; Gjerg wears a specific outfit.

Mr. Hamilton was given the play by Frances Hill, the founding artistic director of Urban Stages in Manhattan, which has collaborated with Guild Hall and the producer Ellen Myers on the production. “Frances was here last year to see ‘The Night Alive,’ a play I directed at Guild Hall. She had read and loved ‘Angry Young Man’ and asked me if I wanted to direct it,” he said.

The thought of directing such an unusual and complicated play was daunting. “I had never directed anything like it before, and I found the prospect of approaching the piece terrifying. As I went to bed, I told my wife I wasn’t going to do it.

I woke up the next day and said, ‘It’s still terrifying, but I’ve got to do this.’ ”

He remained frightened for the first three days in rehearsal until the company made it clear they and their director were going to figure it out together. He realized early on, he said, that the actors — Christopher Daftsios, Rami Margron, Max Samuels, and Nazli Sarpkaya — had to “own” the play themselves.

“They really threw themselves into it. When I was casting, I was especially interested in comedy skills — physical comedy, improv, things like that.” He was delighted to learn from her résumé that Ms. Margron had trained in buffoonery in Paris. “From the beginning, I realized I was in a room with some really talented, really committed artists. The challenge was to go into rehearsal and lift the play up off the page. It was a really wonderful experience.”

A producer, actor, director, and teacher, Mr. Hamilton currently serves as director of the Southampton Theatre Conference, a graduate program at Stony Brook Southampton. He co-founded Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater in 1991 and oversaw more than 50 productions during his 17 years there. He has directed seven plays at Guild Hall since 2006.

Mr. Woolf is an award-winning British writer and director who has worked for companies including the National Theatre, Donmar Warehouse, Bush Theatre, Theatre Royal Bath, and Dreamworks. He was associate director of “Ivanov” with Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hiddleston.

“Angry Young Men” will run Wednesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. through June 18. Tickets are $35, $15 for students.