BWW Reviews: Of Dual Citizenship and Pulled Rugs: MODERN TERRORISM at CATF
[Note: The Contemporary American Theater Festival each year produces five new American plays in Shepherdstown, WV (an hour and a half from Baltimore) Wednesdays through Sundays throughout July. This is a review of one of this year's productions. Each will be separately reviewed in this space.]
Jon Kern's play Modern Terrorism, or They Who Would Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them depicts a cell of terrorists dedicated to bombing the Empire State Building. There are three of them. Rahim, the designated bomb carrier (Omar Maskati) is a college-age Pakistani thoroughly acculturated from American movies and TV (the Star Wars theme is special to him). Yalda (Mahira Kakkar) a sort of general facilitator, Pakistani-American and a little older, was radicalized when a drone hit her destination wedding in Pakistan and killed her husband. The leader and intended publicist for when the group has exploits to publicize, Qalalaase (Royce Johnson), Somali, is the product of Western schools in Africa and Yemeni bomb-making seminars.
All of them, then, have one foot in Muslim culture and one in the Western culture Muslim terrorists affect to despise, and that is part of the point author Jon Kern is making about them. Whether they like it or not, they are dual citizens. What enrages them is also a part of them, and it means that in waging war on Americans, they are also waging war on themselves. Indeed, as Kern pictures them, they are shot through with contradictions.
Yalda is devoted to her iPod songs and irritated by her fellow-radicals' doctrinaire avoidance of toilet paper. Though a woman, she refuses to back down easily when she disagrees with her male colleague Rahim, causing him to remark "This stubbornness. It's because you're American, right?" Qalalaase gets bomb parts delivered by FedEx, rejoices that they are covered by warranties, and tracks an errant shipment by computer. Rahim, motivated by the thought of "all the mothers without children and the men forced to kneel and cry," participates in an effort to cause mothers to lose their children and men to be forced to kneel and cry.
Not surprisingly, a gang so inconsistently constituted is largely a "gang that couldn't shoot straight," to use Jimmy Breslin's phrase. They encounter mishap after mishap, especially when Jerome (Kohler McKenzie), a goofball neighbor from the apartment above theirs in their Brooklyn walkup, blunders into their midst. The jihadis veer constantly and comically between trying to benefit from his cooperation and trying to kill him. Their incoherence is never more on display than in dealing with Jerome:
Qualalasse: We need to know who he is and what he knows. Because unless we do, everyone will die.
Rahim: Don't you mean no one will die?
Qalalaase: [blank] You're right.
Obviously, however, a gang that can't shoot straight is rather different from a gang that can't shoot at all. And one truth about terrorists is that they play with very dangerous toys. The odds thus always favor death and dismemberment in the end; it is just a question of whose. And I suppose that by calling the play a tragicomedy, I am giving away the ending to some degree. But I do it because there is no way to evaluate the play without taking the ending into some kind of account.
Modern American "serious" theater seems to a great degree to be built on plays with a deliberately inconsistent tone. Here, from what I have been saying, it's obvious that the play has a broad comic streak, including some comic dialogue (I just quoted a sample), some social satire and some outright slapstick and farce. No surprise; playwright Kern is on the writing staff of The Simpsons. And that comic touch imbues even one of the serious things the play seeks to do, which is exploring the psychology of the bombers; Kern reported that, as a very close neighbor to the World Trade Center site and a volunteer at Ground Zero, he was trying to understand the "severely flawed narratives" that had led to 9/11, which had so marked his own life. And we do get some apercus: the male bombers seem to have had bad relationships with their dads, for instance (although I"ll hardly call these profound insights). At the end, however, the comedy pretty much deserts the show.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Kern pulls the rug out from under the audience, emotionally speaking. Using comedy to seduce us into sympathy for these would-be killers (as the subtitle suggests), Kern takes us to a very bad place with them. And ultimately, how you feel about the show depends on how you feel about the rug-pulling. One of my companions thought it was great and true to life. Another thought it was facile. I'm somewhere in between.
Of course, a play about terrorists where everyone lived happily ever after would by definition be a play about terrorists who had forsworn terrorism, and would not be realistic. Terrorism waged in the West is generally asymmetrical warfare, meaning that the party under attack has most of the resources and most of the tools, and that, while the terrorists may take a certain number of innocent lives exploiting vulnerabilities, their days are usually numbered. They only get to be Butch Cassidy, not Tamerlane.
But realism is one thing, and dramatic genre another. Are there not limits to how successfully a play can violate the rules and mood of comedy? Again, reasonable minds may differ. But that is the challenge the play poses. It may be that a play that addresses the questions Kern wishes to address cannot be entirely successful with such a laugh track attached.
The viewer's quarrel, if he/she has one, will be with the script, not the direction (by CATF founder Ed Herendeen) or the acting. The cast are a crew of appealing youngsters one hopes to see more of.
In any case, like everything else at CATF, this play will make you think.
Modern Terrorism, Or They Who Want To Kill Us And How We Learn To Love Them, by Jon Kern, directed by Ed Herendeen, through July 28, at the Marinoff Center, 92 West Campus Drive, Shepherdstown, WV 25443. Tickets $30-$57, www.catf.org/boxoffice, 304-876-5443 (credit cards) or 304-876-3473. Adult themes, crude language, gun violence.