Highly promising talent bounces through “Pray to Ball” at the Skylight Theatre. Amir Abdullah’s tersely entertaining examination of Islam, college basketball and friendship has some new-play issues, but it’s undeniably heartfelt and thought-provoking.
Played out on the wood-paneled span of designer Jeff McLaughlin’s marvelous set, “Ball” follows two lifelong pals from the projects, whose star-athlete abilities seem destined for professional contracts before their Miami Florida University term has ended.
Indeed, sophomore Lou (author Abdullah, fervent and funny) has already eschewed an offer so as to room with Hakeem (Y’Lan Noel, intense and convincing), whose freshman year proves most unpredictable. The combination of a family loss and a volatile dorm-party encounter with Muslim co-ed Tamana (Ulka Simone Mohanty) leaves Hakeem grappling with deeper matters than either he or Lou bargained for. A seriocomic study in conflicting loyalties in the face of spiritual awakening emerges.
Director Bill Mendieta keeps things crackling, with vivid assets in Hana Kim’s detailed projections and absolutely his cast. Abdullah and Noel make credible cronies, inhaling Micaal Stevens’ basketball choreography, and Noel enjoys a sweet-sour chemistry with the sensitive, gimlet-eyed Mohanty.
Lindsey Beeman as Lou’s party-girl squeeze is effective and touching in a slightly underwritten role. Rickie Peete brings quiet authority to the Muslim Student Center supervisor who mentors Hakeem. His second role as a visiting homie from the ‘hood is, like Brice Harris’ satirized sports commentator, enjoyably performed yet more functional than fully realized.
That’s a recurring liability. Abdullah’s narrative instincts are sound, but some obviated religious information might be better embedded in the action, and certain story twists feel more convenient than natural.
Even so, it’s a genuinely original look at a too-little explored topic. With further refinements, “Ball” could wind up beside “Take Me Out” and “Blade to the Heat” as a genre-expanding metaphoric sports parable.
“Pray to Ball,” Skylight Theatre, 1816 ½ N. Vermont, L.A. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 25. $30-$34. (213) 761-7061 or http://skylighttix.com. Running time: 2 hours.