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Browntown

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

When current events, joyous or tragic, reshape the world, one group of casualties is all too frequently overlooked: actors. After all, doesn't popular entertainment change itself as needed to meet new expectations, play on or refute new fears? And doesn't that create a new subculture within the acting community that might not always find itself portrayed in the best light?

The name of the subculture currently receiving the most attention, at least according to playwright Sam Younis, is Browntown. That's also what he's titled his riotous new play at the Fringe Festival about that very subject: the concentrated group of Arab-American (or Arab-American-looking) actors trying to make a living in an industry currently most interested in hiring them to play terrorists.

We meet two such actors in the waiting room of a Manhattan casting agency: Malek (Younis) and Omar (Omar Koury) have arrived to audition for a role in a new movie (produced by Jerry Bruckheimer) entitled The Color of Terror. Both men are desperate for work, but are having difficulty reconciling their careers with their heritage; they're tormented still further by the arrival of Vijay (Debargo Sanyal), an Indian-American actor who has been cast very frequently in terrorist roles.

Younis makes the most of every opportunity to explore issues of racial stereotyping: Omar recently played the lead in a production of Indian Ink; the studio next door is auditioning Latino and African-American actors for a borderline offensive TV commercial, but paying an exorbitant sum of money; and the three men are auditioning for a clueless casting director (Whitney Arcaro), who seems to embody the most outrageous and insensitive qualities imaginable. Among them: she's unable to discern the difference between Indian and Arab accents, and she assigns over-the-top, platitudinous motivations to the terrorist characters in her attempts to coax different performances from the actors.

If Browntown is never lacking for humor - and Younis is never willing to let a potential gag of any sort pass him by - it somehow always maintains a grip on reality. Nothing quite approaches the realm of the completely unbelievable, and the characters' worries about "Brownsploitation" never seem totally unjustified. The story flows naturally, and the play arrives at its surprising yet understandable conclusion almost before it feels like it's started. (There's hardly a speck of fat on this show; it runs just under an hour.)

Only in the play's final moments do things feel just a bit off; the story seems to end a minute or two before the play does, leaving only a few moments that lack the rest of the evening's palpable comic energy. Otherwise, Younis and his director, Abigail Marateck, have done superb work in keeping the action sharp, tight, and funny as it follows the absurd travails of these three men from the agency's waiting room to the audition room and back. (The set design is by Jisun Kim and the lighting by Nick Hung.)

Younis seems particularly natural in his depiction of subdued anger and frustration, and he is most successful at drawing you into his character's concerns. Koury and Sanyal also shine in their roles; the scene in which they read from the ludicrous screenplay, each giving their Arab characters sublimely ridiculous voices, is one of the funniest I've seen at the Fringe Festival this year. Arcaro is winningly vacant as the casting director; Alison Poluga plays her ditzy assistant to the hilt, and is especially funny when giving an impossibly dim and characterless rendition of Saddam Hussein's cousin, Chemical Ali.

Very few moments in Browntown are not brimming over with laughs. But it's not until the show is over that you stop laughing long enough to realize that Younis has created a truly thought-provoking examination of racial attitudes and prejudices. If this is an unusual plea for tolerance and acceptance, as much for those being judged as those making the judgments, it's nevertheless an incredibly effective - and hilarious - one.

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New York International Fringe Festival
Browntown
Through August 28
Running Time: 60 minutes with no intermission
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4488