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Review - Modern Terrorism and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I daresay that playwright Jon Kern probably found a previously untried twist in the old staple of "meeting cute" in a romantic comedy by having the central couple of his play be a suicide bomber on a mission to sacrifice himself, and take as many lives as possible with him, on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, and a fellow terrorist helping to achieve his goal as revenge against an American drone attack that killed her husband on her wedding day when the celebration was mistaken for a Taliban gathering.

With a title reminiscent of the old paperback novel series, Modern Romances, and a subtitle (They Who Want To Kill Us and How We Learn To Love Them) that hints of the dark satire of Dr. Strangelove, Kern's comedy will obviously offend many by its very existence as the story of loveably bumbling, but sincere and dedicated fanatics using deadly force to make political statements against the United States. And even though one of the play's strengths is that it never loses hold of the potentially horrific consequences of their actions up until its final violent moments, it would be perfectly understandable for someone to find the evening in the worst of taste. But those who would give it a chance, read on.

Set in a nondescript New York apartment, the opening scene looks like something out of a 21st Century Three Stooges short. Qala, a Somali trained in making bombs, is getting frustrated trying to properly set explosives inside college student Rahim's underpants. It seems the cheerful and not-very-bright suicide volunteer's generous endowment has crushed his equipment.

Played with businesslike seriousness by William Jackson Harper, Qala hopes to gain honor and celebrity through masterminding such missions, but he's also a loving family man trying to provide a good life for his wife and two daughters in Dubai. Utkarsh Ambudkar's Rahim is a sweet and likeable dude with no hatred towards Americans, but is inspired by his favorite Star Wars characters to do something daring and heroic, like a noble rebel fighting an evil empire.

As the emotionally guarded widow, Yalda, Nitya Vidyasagar plays the Pakistani-American as a woman striving to excel in a male-dominated field. She has a friendly bonding with the presumed soon-to-be-dead Rahim and when the first attempt at his mission fails she is both disgusted and flattered by the suspicion that he might have intentionally bungled it to spend more time with her. Eventually, they both show themselves willing to make the supreme sacrifice so the other may live; a romantic gesture if you can forget that it means killing innocent people.

Jamming up the works is slacker/stoner Jerome (Steven Boyer as a funny goofball) a white neighbor from the building who accidentally discovers the plot when he comes by to deliver a package FedEx sent him by mistake. Jerome avoids getting killed by Qala when he convinces him that he can be useful buying supplies without causing suspicion. Though Jerome expresses a desire to help get back at a society that alienates him, audience members might still wonder if he's actually helping or cleverly playing along while looking for a chance to foil the plot.

Under different circumstances, the characters of Modern Terrorism might be more easily accepted as anti-heroes. Kern wisely avoids having them discuss any kind of violent radical extremism or hatred toward Americans and the strong ensemble, under Peter DuBois' direction, smoothly blends from cute comic scenes to the more serious matters at hand. Daring the audience to laugh and enjoy themselves, the play works because it's an unconventional premise played very conventionally.

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

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With its New England college town setting and its leading roles originated on stage by Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen and created for the screen by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Edward Albee's knife-twisting marital grudge match known as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is traditionally played with an elevated tone of actorly sophistication; eloquence gone madly ugly as free-flowing alcohol propels well-aimed verbal daggers.

But director Pam MacKinnon's 50th Anniversary production comes from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, those exporters of gritty revivals like their One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and harshly naturalistic originals like August: Osage County. In her thrilling and completely engaging mounting, George and Martha are decidedly plain and non-theatrical; a sort of Edward Albee couple if created by Arthur Miller. It's a move that ups the chill factor without losing the humor of the script's vicious banter.

August: Osage County's author, Tracy Letts, who began his theatre career as an actor, makes his on-stage Broadway debut opposite frequent collaborator Amy Morton, a Tony nominee for the aforementioned. George, the underachieving history professor whose job security is his marriage to the college president's daughter, is traditionally played in various degrees of emasculation, enduring Martha's domineering abuse only to a point where he's driven to strike her weak spot involving the way she sees her relationship with their son. But Letts' George is craftily passive-aggressive. He knows he's married to a tiger and he's quite adept at making her believe she has the upper hand. Morton's subtle, underplayed - at least as compared with previous essayists of the role - Martha becomes a more sympathetic character, as her public acts of humiliation are reduced to desperate shots aimed at a bulletproof target.

Nick and Honey, the young biology professor and his pretty, blonde wife become George and Martha's audience and sometimes targets of verbal abuse, invited over for late-night cocktails after some heavy imbibing at a school function. Madison Dirks' ruggedly handsome and politely mannered Nick is gradually lured into the older couple's dark side and Carrie Coon reveals Honey's controlling nature ask she becomes more soaked in brandy. The innocent pairing may be looking at themselves in twenty years.

Photo of Amy Morton and Tracy Letts by Michael Brosilow.

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You know those people who can eat whatever they want and never gain a pound? Charlie, the central character of Samuel D. Hunter's touching drama The Whale, isn't one of them. Charlie's dietary habits declined in a sharp downward spiral after losing his lover under tragic circumstances. He lives a reclusive existence in his Idaho home, teaching how to write basic essays from his laptop while spread across his couch, with his students able to hear his voice, but never see his face. When he last used a scale, Charlie weighed in at 550 pounds. He suspects to be close to 600 now.

Costume designer Jessica Pabst provides sufficient padding under Charlie's casual outfit, but it's the excellent, detailed performance of Shuler Hensley that really makes us see the character's weight; wheezing with nearly every breath and making every physical movement an effort. He spends most of the play center stage on the couch, but when he uses a walker to travel to the bathroom, his slow, exhausting journey is heartbreaking to watch.

Charlie nearly suffers a heart attack while masturbating to Internet porn and his life is saved with the help of a chance visit by Elder Thomas (Cory Michael Smith) an earnest young Mormon who came to his door wishing to talk about his church. They're soon joined by Charlie's only friend, Liz (Cassie Beck, showing sincere affection through tough love), a nurse with reasons to reject any talk of the Mormon Church.

After taking Charlie's astronomical blood pressure, Liz flatly states that unless he goes to a hospital now, he'll be dead before the week is done. But Charlie, who is uninsured, refuses. Instead he uses what might be his final days to reunite with his 17-year-old daughter, Ellie (Reyna de Courcy, in a deadpan smart-ass performance that might make you think of Wednesday Addams). They haven't seen each other since she was two, when Charlie, upon figuring out his true sexuality, left his wife, Mary (Tasha Lawrence).

Ellie, who claims to be extremely intelligent, is nevertheless failing in school, and has no interest in spending time with this man she doesn't know until he offers to pay her and help her learn to write an essay. Helping her achieve the ability to communicate and express herself is the most personal and loving thing he can do with whatever time is left.

Given the circumstances, Hunter's references to Moby Dick and the Biblical Jonah do stand out as a bit heavy-handed, but the play's strength is in subtly getting the point across that though the results of Charlie's emotional problems are evident, the people surrounding him carry deeper, less visible scars. Under Davis McCallum's direction, the fine cast balances humor and drama, often getting very nasty without turning seriously ugly.

But it's Hensley's performance - one that would be convincing even if the in-shape actor wasn't wearing the fat suit - that rises above everything else, showing throughout how Charlie's heart is truly his most prominent feature.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Shuler Hensley; Bottom: Shuler Hensley and Cory Michael Smith.

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