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A CurtainUp Review
Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes
Yussef El Guindi, who wrote Jihad Jones, is all the rage right now. (Can we still say "rage" or is that a terrorist slur?) Two weeks ago he won the American Theater Critics Association's M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award, which recognizes an emerging playwright who has not yet achieved national stature. It was awarded for Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat, which premiered in 2008 at Chicago's Silk Road Theatre Project. Actually El Guindi's work has been produced around the country. Some plays have been published by Dramatists Play Service and some are included in collections, but big time name recognition is just catching up.
Seth Rozin, Producing Artistic Director of InterAct Theatre Company, directs this boiling-over comedy in which a stage actor, Ashraf (Fajer Al-Kaisi), whose work has caught the eye of a gifted director, Julius (Peter Schmitz) is given a script to read by his smarmy agent, Barry Barkley (Jon Zak). The movie script is awful and worse yet, it perpetuates images of dreaded Allah-worshiping Middle Easterners taking hostages, raping and murdering.
The actor's agent, by turns overbearing and obsequious, salivates over the prospect of the prestige and commission this deal will bring him, and pressures Ashraf to accept the offer. Ashraf, appalled by the cartoon plot and viciously exploitive theme, insists he will not be a cardboard cutout of a Muslim villain. Barry lets drop that it pays $800K, which could be pushed up to a million. "Just saying the numbers ",Barry wheedles, "is like a full body massage."
El Guindi sets up the situation so that the Arab-American protagonist is poised between selling out or honoring his principles: On one side there's the starring role that demonizes his ethnic group, big bucks, a chance to work with one of his all-time director heroes, and steamy sex scenes with the luscious Cassandra Shapely (Laura Catlaw). The other side has only his $200 a week legitimate acting gig and his integrity. Which side will he choose? The whole play revolves around this question.
The action becomes convoluted and hysterical as the arrival of the great director and his female star sends Barry into spasms. His secretary, Peggy (Leah Walton) falls for Cassandra, and Ashraf surprises even himself by waving a gun around, exactly like the terrorist he is not. The famous movie director is unfazed, and Cassandra goes all preachy about how "theater rats" have to get over themselves and take the roles they can get.
The actors clearly enjoy playing their characters: Fajer Al-Kaisi, earnest and forthright, is a wonderful straight man. He can also be seriously funny. Jon Zak is over the top, right where his agent character lives. Peter Schmitz nails the director role with droll Zen-like calm. Laura Catlaw does a self-possessed comic temptress, and Leah Walton handles zany infatuation well. Director Seth Rozin keeps the crazy ride rolling.
The set, a gray conventional office except for piles of scripts and a few posters, becomes an unholy mess. The use of snatches of recorded music is witty and the lighting design includes a clever reference to large windows, which would form the 4th wall.
In Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes the laughs keep coming and timely issues are aired as Ashraf grapples with his dilemma. The humorous language is so good in this farce with a message you'll want to memorize lines and pretend you made them up yourself.
Note: This production is the second of three "rolling" World Premieres, part of the National New Play Network's "Continued Life of New Plays Fund. " Its first production took place at Golden Thread (San Francisco) and the next will be at Kitchen Dog Theater (Dallas) in May.