If laughter is the best medicine, Terrorism is a dandy over-the-counter pick-me-up. A co-production of The Play Company and The New Group that just opened at Theatre Row's Clurman Theatre, it takes a subject weighing heavily on all our minds and reduces it to its simplest, most brutal, and often craziest component elements. By and large, it succeeds as both commentary and entertainment.
But if you're under the impression that Terrorism was written as a response to the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the United States's subsequent focus on external threats, think again: The playwrights, Siberian brothers Oleg and Vladimir Presnyakov, wrote the play before that climactic day, and it was originally produced in Moscow the following year. Even if it's impossible to avoid bringing your own emotional and intellectual baggage to the play, as written (and translated, by Sasha Dugdale), it's a fresh, timely, and often vibrant work that transcends headlines in consistently inventive ways.
The first scene, set in an airport, establishes the deceptively straightforward nature of the show: As a group of passengers wait out the investigation of a possible threat that has stalled all arrivals and depatures, they muse about the possibilities of an actual attack on them, as well as the internal perplexities, fears, and explosive reactions that often prove more dangerous than actual bombs or insurgents.
Each subsequent scene expands on this: The action shifts to a bedroom, where the consensual sex of a couple (married, but not to each other) slowly turns to rape of both the body and mind; in a dreary, oppressive office, a group of depressed employees lash out at each other and their most minutely annoying behaviors in increasingly farcical ways; two elderly women on a park bench frankly discuss poisoning family members they don't like, for reasons that seem more than just vaguely racist; a group of law-enforcement officers ponder the fine line between committing evil and commenting upon it.
The authors, though, generally resist commenting directly on the characters or their actions. They don't, however, shy away from raising questions about how people behave on different sides of each terrorism issue, but they do it in a way that never preaches or scolds; that keeps the play refreshingly free of the accusatory rhetoric that's laced so post-September 11 plays. Will Frears's stark, jagged staging, Marcus Doshi's harsh lighting, and David Korins's stone-and-barbed-wire terror camp set, however, never let you forget that violence is at the heart of any kind of terrorist act. The nine-person cast, which includes such unique and resourceful actors as Elizabeth Marvel and Laura Esterman, is capable of negotiating the play's frequent shifts in style and tone.
But the Presnyakovs' attempts to make Terrorism conform to the typical, expected strictures of a play dampen much of the show's potential impact. The intricate pattern of connectivity they gradually establish between the scenes is less inspired than contrived, and the complete picture they draw of these interlocking lives is less interesting than most of the pieces that constitute it. A quietly vicious rape scene (featuring a potentially disturbing amount of nudity, it must be noted) immediately followed by a Seinfeld-styled office discussion spurred by a woman who hangs herself in a "relaxation room" is brilliant crafting that neither needs nor benefits from additional theatrical embellishment.
The most successful twist they incorporate into the show is in the final scene, set aboard one of the delayed airplanes once it's finally taken off. One passenger - annoyed, paranoid, and frightened, on the ground and in the air - must face and conquer his fears and disappointments if he's to resume something akin to a normal life. But because of what he's recently seen, heard, and been forced to deal with, it won't be easy. The Presnyakovs, however, make dealing with tough personal and political subjects look both easy and enjoyable. If their final product has some unnecessary rough edges, it still plays in a smoother and more intriguing way than many plays dealing with issues just as weighty and agendas far more pronounced.