Yasmin is asleep outdoors, bathed in the orange glow of her space heater, when a man sneaks up to steal her source of warmth. A young woman alone, she appears defenseless to this stranger, an easy target — until she snaps to alertness and springs on him with a violence that’s almost feral.
They tussle. She stabs him and wins. Then she offers to suture the wound. If, that is, he has five euros to pay her for it.
Classic meet-cute, right? In Sylvia Khoury’s insidiously sharp new play “Power Strip,” on Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 stage, Yasmin and the would-be thief, Khaled, do get together. Just don’t expect a rom-com resolution.
Set on the outskirts of a chaotically overcrowded refugee camp on the Greek island Lesbos, where Yasmin and Khaled are part of the exodus from Syria’s brutal civil war, “Power Strip” is about displacement, desperation and dreams of acculturation.
But for all the timeliness of Tyne Rafaeli’s production, arriving as the eight-year-old conflict is making fresh headlines in the United States, “Power Strip” isn’t the sort of theatrical experience — like “The Jungle,” say, or “Flight” — in which the audience feels, viscerally, the urgency of refugee life. A certain stiffness, in the performance and the script, keeps it at a regrettable remove.
If “Power Strip” is more striking intellectually and politically than dramatically, though, it is striking nonetheless.
At 20, Yasmin (Dina Shihabi) has only recently awakened to the forces that have shaped her life — men fighting over land, men making pawns of girls and women, men deciding what makes a woman a treasure and what makes her trash.
Back in Damascus, before the war rendered life there untenable, Yasmin dutifully saved herself for marriage to her fiancé, Peter (Ali Lopez-Sohaili), who seems like an arrogant jerk, even in her gauzy memories.
Now she is saving herself in a different, more heroic sense. Like Darja, the tenacious Polish immigrant in Martyna Majok’s “Ironbound,” Yasmin is on a gritty, grueling quest for survival. She will allow nothing to get in the way of her self-rescue.
Up on her bleak little patch of rocky hillside, just outside the walls of the rat-infested camp, she has rigged up a power strip where she can plug in her space heater and charge her phone. (The set is by Arnulfo Maldonado, the mistily moody lighting by Jen Schriever.) Yasmin arrived at the camp with her father, a once-joyful man now drunken and depressed, and she looks out for him, to a point. Her plans for the future don’t include him.
Munich is where she sees herself, and so she practices her German and squirrels away all the money she can to pay a fixer to take her there. When Khaled (Darius Homayoun) asks if she knows where he might buy a space heater — a decent guy, he wants it for his ailing mother — the unsentimental Yasmin charges him for the answer.
“Two euros and I’ll tell you where to get one,” she says.
She and Khaled are soon hanging out anyway, helping each other endure and navigate the limbo of their present while dreaming of a future that, just maybe, it’s possible for them to share.
Yet the past has a hold on them both — and while she’s trying to slough it off like an old skin, he values it: not just the Islamic traditions they grew up with, but also famous stories from English history and Greek mythology.
To us, this may be touching proof of his affinity for Western culture even as Europe pulls up the drawbridge against refugees like him. To Yasmin, it has a different resonance.
“I guess I like the idea of a world,” Khaled says, “where there are gods sitting around on Mount Olympus making sense of things.”
“A world where women turn into trees?” she replies, thinking of the nymph Daphne, who was transformed into a laurel bush to evade Apollo’s sexual attentions.
“Why did women turn into trees again?” Khaled asks.
“To keep their bodies pure, remember?” Yasmin says.
The notion of female moral and sexual purity — and the way male pride and predation are bound up in that — is a central theme of “Power Strip,” and it’s to Rafaeli’s credit that it becomes apparent only gradually. Where the playwright gives too much away on the page, the director cleverly fosters ambiguity in service of a more potent reveal.
Yasmin, on her lonely hillside, understands that in both the culture she’s leaving and the one she’s determined to enter, traditional ideas about women and their agency are stubborn things, deeply and often subtly embedded in the stories we’ve repeated for millenniums.
What she’s after is a template of her own making — and the kind of happy ending that’s only possible if she has the freedom and courage to find it, and define it, for herself.
Tickets Through Nov. 17 at the Claire Tow Theater, Manhattan; 212-239-6200. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.