As American As
by Ken Prestininzi
directed by Shirley Serotsky
produced by Journeymen Theater Ensemble
reviewed by Janice Cane
The premise of the dark comedy As American As is promising. What is the ultimate price of freedom and security? What does it mean to be patriotic in our post-9/11 world? How much would we sacrifice for our country? One family agrees to convert their basement into a “black site” for terrorist interrogation.
With a terrorist holding cell in a suburban home, you’d expect a lot of tension and action. But As American As is all talk. Literally. The entire first act consists of two agents, known only as Frank and Frank, leading Harriet and Jim Penini (Deborah Kirby and Gerald B. Browning) to their unorthodox decision to play host to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The Franks’ (unnamed) agency had operated sites overseas, but those were shut down, so they are looking for new, unobvious locations. Jim suggests Antarctica; Harriet suggests their basement.
Harriet considers herself patriotic, but really she just wants to save her son, Tommy. She assumes Tommy will be the prisoner downstairs, because the Franks suspect him of subversive behavior and his whereabouts are unknown to Harriet and Jim. Tommy had always questioned the U.S. government and his religion, Catholicism, even before he took up with his Iranian boyfriend. But we never really find out what he is up to, because it turns out the Franks are far less successful at interrogation than they are at manipulating the Peninis, keeping Harriet in particular occupied with baking them batch after batch of cookies.
In the second act, the Franks bring in a hooded prisoner (played by Maboud Ebrahimzaden) and question him in the basement. Most of this interrogation is pantomimed silently while we watch the couple upstairs quarrel over their decision. Harriet is gung-ho – anything to help her son and, to a lesser extent, her country – but Jim is appalled at this perverse form of patriotism. He’s the only one who seems to recognize the insanity of a basement black site, but no one, Jim included, reacts with any genuine display of emotion, not even when the prisoner is first brought in the house. Maybe that’s because the prisoner himself – always hooded – doesn’t seem to mind the situation all that much; Ebrahimzaden’s body language exudes complacency. Whether this is how playwright Ken Prestininzi intended is unclear.
The aesthetic elements of As American As are impressive. Robbie Hayes’ set, consisting of the Peninis’ basement and living room and Tommy’s bedroom, is fairly simple, except that the latter two rooms tilt sharply downward, signifying the shaky moral ground upon which this house is situated.
As American As certainly seeks to raise questions, but it falls short – at no fault of the actors. If a bit haltingly, Kirby portrays Harriet as a mother desperate to save her son, and her sanity. “I am right. I am losing it. I am proud,” she proclaims. Browning does his best with the flat character of Jim, and is most endearing when portraying his son as a youngster, as conjured by Harriet. The two Franks (Colin Smith and Daniel Gavigan) also play Tommy in their host’s imagination; their boyish playfulness in Tommy’s twin bed highlights their talents more than the serious scenes in the basement.
Near the end, relationships between the characters include, well, relations between two least expected characters. If the playwright is making a point about the intertwined nature of power and sex, it gets muddled, and seems forced. A play founded on such an original idea should not have to rely on a trite plot device just to wrap things up. And it should include a little less talk and a little more action.
Running Time: 1:45, 10-minute intermission
When: Thru November 15. Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays at 8:00, Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00, and Sundays at 7:30.
Where: Church Street Theater, 1742 Church Street NW, Washington, D.C.
Tickets: $20 for adults, $15 for students and senior citizens
Call: 800-494-TIXS or consult the website.