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Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want To Kill Us and How We Learn To Love Them
By Elyse Sommer
The plot of Jon Ken's play is as awkwardly convoluted as its unwieldy title. Three incompetent terrorists who met via an internet chat room have hatched a plot to set off a suicide bomb at the Empire State Building. Qala (William Jackson Harper), the incompetent in chief is from Somalia, his partners are American born Muslims. The launching pad is a hastily furnished Brooklyn apartment.
The malfunction of the device, a crotch bomb, is the first stumbling block in this comedic misadventure. To ratchet up the complications there's upstairs neighbor Jerome (Steven Boyer), a slacker who has the bad luck to become involved with them — -or as he sees it, the possible good luck of turning his entrapment into his own fifteen minutes of fame and fortune.
Living in a world where all too many terrorist schemes achieve their bloody aims, the inevitable stumbling blocks to the suicidal killing do open a window of opportunity for a clever writer to satirize the insanity of it all. The need for a chance to spoof an unfunny reality was made eerily relevant by the fact that on the very day Modern Terrorism had its official opening, when a terrorist with plans to blow up a federal building was apprehended as part of a sting operation.
The problem is that as the plan of Kern's modern day three stooges misfires, so does his play. Except for an occasional bit of dialogue and some non-verbal funny business, this simply isn't sharp enough to be the exception of George S. Kaufman's much quoted definition of satire as "what closes on Saturday night." In fact, as this attempt at clever parody became increasingly unfunny, I kept hearing President Obama tell his opponent that politicizing a tragedy like the terrorist killing of our Lybian Ambassador and a number of staff members as "offensive."
To be fair, the four young actors can't be faulted for not doing their utmost to make the madcap missteps hilarious. They deliver the verbal volleys with the solid timing and as much emotional nuance as possible. Utkarsh Ambudkar brings enough naive wistfulness to Rahim, the group's designated martyr, to almost make the "how we learn to love them" part of the text believable. Vidyasagar as Yalda is briefly amusing in a scene in which she wordlessly gets ready to shoot Boyer's Jerome by covering the couch and floor with a whole roll of paper towels to avoid ruining it with blood stains. But the romantic subplot between her and Rahim feels tacked on.
The moments when the out of control situation almost do work come from Boyer. As slacker who's unlucky enough to have the replacement for the bomb that failed delivered to his apartment instead of that of his downstairs neighbors, he gets some of the sharpest lines — especially when he sums up how his involuntary partnership in the final killing scheme as a happy ending to his heretofore loser existence. When Nitya Vidyasagar's Yalda reacts with shock to his plan to turn his hostage experience into fame and fortune, he's got a ready comeback: "Hey, in this country, You have to know how to take disaster And turn it into cha-ching." Though he admits to being terrified, he cites more efficient and scary counterparts in America: "Now Goldman Sachs, Those muthafuckas are terrifying. They can take down a whole country."
Peter DuBois keeps things moving along at a brisk pace, though the many short scenes call on him to deal with too many blackouts. The scene is nicely set by Alexander Dodge's apartment with its old fashioned moldings and the glimpses of the cityscape beyond. M. L. Dogg's incidental music help to relieve the tedium of all those blackouts.
The only way to explain this too sitcom flavored play's winning the prestigious Laurents/Hatcher award is that the judges wanted to reward his audacity for taking on (even if not fulfulling) the challenge of making people laugh even as they are horrified by the tragedy of misdirected hatred and religious fervor.
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