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Modern Terrorism

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

William Jackson Harper and Utkarsh Ambudkar.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

With South Park and Team America: World Police, Trey Parker and Matt Stone proved long ago that jihad can indeed be a laughing matter. Jon Kern attempts a similar feat with his new play at Second Stage: Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them. As its labored title suggests, however, this would-be side-splitter is sidelined by Kern's inability to determine the difference between "too much of a good thing" and "way too much of a so-so thing."

Despite leaning surprisingly heavily on the latter, Kern has set forth what should be a surefire premise: filtering the darkest paranoias of post-9/11 New York City life through the inherent absurdity of a TV sitcom. Broad characters abound in the parodically spacious and too-pretty cheap-looking apartment (designed, with creative flair, by Alexander Dodge) in which the action is set: Rahim (Utkarsh Ambudkar), an energetic 20-year-old Pakistani man who was educated in America, and who chooses as his false biography his real-life experience because it's easier to remember; Yalda (Nitya Vidyasagar), his tradition-focused, Maryland-raised neatnik cousin; and Qala (William Jackson Harper), the apparent ringleader who can barely orchestrate the simplest of plans. There's even a wacky upstairs neighbor named Jerome (Steven Boyer).

The curtain moment, for example, promises a show that will really sparkle. Qala is kneeling before Rahim's bulging briefs, installing a bomb therein, a knowing tribute to real-life underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Their plan: for Rahim to sacrifice his life by riding to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, then taking out the historic skyscraper with a well-timed pelvic thrust. Alas, Rahim accidentally breaks the bomb, necessitating ordering a replacement part—which is delivered to Jerome instead. He comes to bring it back, ushering in the kookiness with the FedEx box.

Except not really. Torn between crafting an honest-to-goodness frivolous comedy and a message piece that warns on everyone's reliance on preconceptions to fuel their actions when dealing with others, Kern attempts to wrap both concepts into one and fails to do justice to either. Each of the potential show-stopping situations he sets up—Rahim has the hots for Yalda, Jerome is a hopeless drifter who needs a friend, Qala is too trusting of others he converses with in Internet chat rooms—is either clubbed to death through overuse, or fizzles out entirely when the small titters it generates never fully compound.

Kern kindles the most fun when he pushes his conceit the furthest. In an early scene, Rahim discusses how he calms himself by humming the main theme from the film A New Hope. Yalda eventually coaxes out of him that he means Star Wars, but he's intent on going by the title on the DVD box. "That's a corruption of history," she hisses, as though he had misquoted the Qur'an. As for the new movies: "They profane the original.... For someone who cares about Star Wars, who remembers her father's joy as he gathered she and her brothers to watch with him, who received this ritual as a child, Star Wars is the one true name."

Nitya Vidyasagar and Steven Boyer.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Later, after the package fails to arrive, Rahim consults FedEx's website and learns that it had been dropped off earlier that morning. "The Internet is full of falsehoods," Qala spits. Then, closer to the end of the first act, when Yalda is plotting to shoot Jerome for knowing too much, she empties two full rolls of paper towels onto the couch in order to protect her precious investment from the inevitable torrent of blood.

Much more common than these moments are the arid, apparently endless, pauses between lines and at the ends of scenes, as though neither the actors nor director Peter DuBois ever pondered pacing. Most of the physical business is roundly awkward, flabby rather than sharp; this is bad enough in Act I, but becomes a serious problem after intermission when the narrative rudder has mostly dissolved and timing is even more crucial. Serious monologues are barked à la Three's Company dialogue, ruthless comic exchanges are intoned as if ripped from Medea, and nothing ever looks, feels, or sounds the way you think it ought to. When whole minutes are spent on Jerome wielding a bathroom hose against a revolver-carrying assailant, something is deeply wrong.

That said, Boyer delivers the closest thing to a successful performance, having at least conceived an energy he can maintain at a consistent level throughout the evening; Jerome's personality doesn't waver as he's buffeted between difficult situations. Ambudkar possesses a rubber face that elicits some genuine giggles in the one or two slapstick moments that work, but reads as at best vacant the rest of the time. Vidyasagar is, if anything, too intense for Yalda; she must eventually melt, and that's not possible with this actress's stilted, permafrost portrayal. Harper comes across as a complete, starched cipher, but as his role is more sparsely written than anyone else, one cannot fully blame the actor.

Like everything else about Modern Terrorism, Qala is the victim of too little advance planning and spiritual certainty. His weaknesses collide with the play's in the final scene, when a series of mishaps land everyone in the middle of a combat they never expected and aren't sure how to prosecute. What's Rahim's solution? Escape from the world with an iPod loaded with the Star Wars theme song, of course. By that time in the evening, you'll understand the impulse all too well.

Modern Terrorism
Through November 4
Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street
Tickets and current schedule

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