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A Man Like You

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 14, 2016

Given the extensive global anxiety about terrorism, it should come as no surprise that a number of playwrights have attempted to shed light on the disturbing issue of hostage-taking by terrorist groups. Such plays as Danai Gurira's Eclipsed, Ayad Akhtar's The Invisible Hand, and Lee Blessing's Two Rooms, among others, have attempted to gain psychological insights into the perpetrators, the victims, and the families of the hostages. Add to this growing list a new work, A Man Like You by Silvia Cassini, who downplays the nerve-wracking suspense and the emotional trauma inherent in the situation in favor of a more even-handed debate aimed at arriving at some sort of mutual understanding across a chasm of conflicting world views.

Whether such an understanding is even possible is one of the more significant questions raised in the play, now in a RED Soil Productions presentation at IATI Theater. One man's terrorism is, after all, another's act of heroic valor, and martyrdom is not merely fodder for jokes about 72 virgins. Some people take their cause and their religious principles very seriously, indeed.

In the wake of an attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi, where dozens of civilians were killed by Somali terrorists, a British diplomat is kidnapped and held captive for political and financial gain. In the opening scene, the diplomat, Patrick North (Matthew Stannah, RED Soil's artistic director), is being shoved by two men into the windowless room where he will spend the next 100-plus days. One of the men, Hassan (Andrew Clarke), always seen carrying an AK-47, is the more threatening of the pair. The other, Abdi (Jeffrey Marc), who speaks impeccable English, is the one who spends most of the time with Patrick, laying out his dream of normalization, of a modern functioning government and "an Islam without extremism."

Of course, there is a rocky and treacherous road to follow before that dream is realized. Hence, the hostage situation, in which, as Abdi reminds him, Patrick has been "bought and sold like a bag of charcoal" and his life is nothing more than a "bargaining chip." As it turns out, Patrick has been targeted specifically rather than randomly, but the explanation for it is tangential to the point of the play, which is to lay out the clashing perspectives pitting "terrorism" against the West's "interventionist imperialism."

Interspersed between these scenes of debate are domestic ones that take place in Patrick's home, where his wife Elizabeth (Jenny Boote) anxiously awaits news of his fate. It is she who keeps us up to date on the efforts of diplomacy and the military to broker a rescue. Again, however, while Elizabeth speaks of her emotional turmoil, we are distanced from it. This is a play of big ideas more than it is of the specific characters. As such, it functions well, even as we are called upon to pay close attention to the conflicting interpretations of the history behind the stand-off.

Under Yudelka Heyer's direction, the actors do a good job of keeping their characters from exploding into emotional outbursts. There is no getting in the way of the thrust of the play to lay out its arguments. Decidedly, we are not going to be particularly sympathetic to the terrorists, and neither is Patrick (no Stockholm Syndrome here). But they do have their points: "You talk to me about War?" Abdi asks. "Seriously? When were our soldiers last in your countries crusading in the name of God? 9/11 was abominable but bombing Iraq was what?" Questions like this echo throughout. What remains uncertain is whether there will ever be any satisfactory answers. As for Patrick and Abdi, both their fates are in the balance; their shared humanity may be the single thread that binds them together. Will the thread hold, or will it break?

A Man Like You
Through July 31
IATI Theater, 64 East 4th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Brown Paper Tickets

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