Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
Back of the Throat
Also see Sharon's review of Recent Tragic Events
The program for Back of the Throat contains an interview with playwright Yussef El Guindi. He explains that the play "started out as a thought game. What would happen if [federal] agents paid a visit to my house and looked around? What can you say about a person from what he owns?"
Khaled, the protagonist of Back of the Throat has: a copy of the Koran (his mom gave it to him; she wants him to be more religious); a couple of books in Arabic (also courtesy of mom); some books on different political theories including Communism (to be "an active informed citizen"); a book on assassins (research for a story he's writing); and a porn magazine (... OK, half a dozen). As the play begins, Khaled is visited by two black-suited government agents. The time is "after the attacks" and Khaled is happy to cooperate with the agents' informal inquiry. In fact, he'd nearly called them himself. He's an American citizen (he waves his passport) and wants to do whatever he can to help any sort of investigation that would help keep America safe. Ammar Mahmood plays Khaled as a young intellectual (without a trace of an Arabic accent). Were it not for his skin color and the fact that his name starts with a guttural ("back of the throat," says one of the agents) sound, Khaled is the sort of character you might expect to be played by a young Matthew Broderick.
But it is the fact that Khaled is of Arabic descent that has piqued the curiosity of Bartlett and Carl - the black suits. And in the play's uninterrupted single act, the "informal" discussion with Khaled quickly progresses to a rather more formal situation in which Khaled thinks it might be better to discontinue the interview until he has a lawyer present. However, by this time, Bartlett and Carl have found enough incriminating evidence to not be inclined to leave, and the play descends into a Kafka-esque scenario, which is frightening because it doesn't seem nearly as implausible as it ought to. In one of the play's more chilling moments, Carl assaults Khaled while at the same time telling him that he resents what Khaled has "forced us to become." And one can't help but think that the photos from Abu Ghraib have forced us to become citizens who find it conceivable that agents like Bartlett and Carl might go too far with a suspect like Khaled.
If there is a flaw in the play, it is that the evidence that originally led Bartlett and Carl to suspect Khaled (shown to us in flashbacks) is not shown until late in the play. Obviously, Bartlett and Carl's rationale is kept from the audience because we are intended to sympathize with Khaled, whose repeated requests for any sort of explanation go unheeded. But when the play is exploring how easy it is law enforcement agents to cross the line when they think they've got the goods on a terrorist, it might be helpful to know what the agents know, rather than think they've gone berserk just because the guy's got a Koran and a girlie magazine.
Doug Newell and Anthony Di Novi play Carl and Bartlett as agents who genuinely believe they're doing the right thing - and who play "good cop/bad cop" almost innately. Many of their lines get laughs, but that's largely because they have a deadpan style that is reminiscent of Tommy Lee Jones's line in Men in Black, "We at the FBI do not have a sense of humor we're aware of." Vonessa Martin appears in flashback as several of the women who gave statements incriminating Khaled to the agents - she's particularly notable as Khaled's ex-girlfriend with a grudge.
Mahmood's portrayal of Khaled is sometimes stilted - often his speech sounds as unnatural and scripted as that of the agents when they're telling him that they have no intention of interfering with his privacy. At other times, his portrayal is quite moving. When he realizes that Bartlett and Carl are actually going to refuse his request for a lawyer, Mahmood's face reflects the genuine shock of an American who has just had the Constitution pulled out from under him. And that is terrifying.
Back of the Throat runs at the Balcony Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse through July 29, 2006. For information, see www.furioustheatre.org.
Furious Theatre Company presents Back of the Throat by Yussef El Guindi. Directed by Dámaso Rodriquez. Stage Manager Christie Wright; Production Manager Nick Cernoch; Lighting Design Dan Jenkins; Sound Design Cricket Strother Myers; Master Electrician Dan Healey; Graphic Design Eric Pargac; Original Artwork Valerie Meijer; Producers Brad Price, Sara Hennessy and Eric Pargac; Set/Props Design Shawn Lee; Costume Design Rachel Canning; Technical Director Shawn Lee; Choreographer Lorraine St. Charles; Sound Board Operator Katie Davies; Production Intern Jennie Inglis; Build Crew Brad Price and Nicek Cernoch; Publicist David Elzer, Demand PR.