Terrorism. Not typically the topic that makes you want to have a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.
However, terrorists are the subject of Jon Kern’s horribly funny play Extreme Terrorism, inappropriately enough, one of the bright spots in this year’s American Contemporary Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
Mr. Kern knows his boundaries-stretching humor—he’s a writer for the animated TV show The Simpsons. This “laugh at the verboten” sensibility shows up in the play’s dialogue and premise, and the classic sitcom structure and reliance on lightly-sketched characters also inform Modern Terrorism. Director Ed Herendeen emphasizes the sitcom-y elements with an episodic pace that cuts up the scenes so neatly you half-expect to see commericials.
Luckily, for the inhabitants of the Empire State Building and the world at large, the terrorists in Modern Terrorism are the bumbling sort that seem about as menacing as the Nazis in Hogan’s Heroes or the inept burglars from the Home Alone franchise.
The reality of most terrorists is far more devastating, but in the make-believe world of the theater the trio of Muslim radicals aiming to blow up the Empire State Building as a first step in bringing America and its decadence to its knees are ardent, but artless.
It takes mighty big cojones to find the ha-ha in the jihad, but Mr. Kern manages to do just that. The opening bit sets the scene for the disrespectful tenor of the humor as the stage lights come up on two Muslim men, one of whom is rummaging around in the other’s underpants.
What we’re seeing is not the East Asian version of Brokeback Mountain, but the leader of the separatist group, Sengalese Qualalaase (Royce Johnson), trying to rig up the fuse for the explosives to be strapped to suicide bomber Rahim (Omar Maskati), a young Pakistani and lover of all things Star Wars.
Qualalasse recruited Rahim on the Internet, where he presumably also found the fiercely committed Yalda (Mahira Kakkar), the lone female of the group. D-Day is tomorrow, but there is one tiny glitch—Fed Ex delivered a bomb part to the Brooklyn apartment upstairs.
No problem. Jerome (Kohler McKenzie), the goofus upstairs neighbor, drops off the mistakenly opened package, detonating a series of comic mishaps. The playwright means for us to warm to the wackiness of the terrorists and their unexpected hostage as they chat about Star Wars, I-pods, ordering Chinese and other cozily familiar topics.
And for the most part, it works, as we laugh about racial profiling at the hardware store, Rahim and Jerome becoming buddy-buddy over Michael Jordan, Rahim’s fumbling crush on Yalda—much to her cool disdain—and Qualalasse’s absurd posturing, such as when he muses “Every day, I pray that Allah will grant my wish and make my life less important, so that I could throw it all away.”
Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them
Runs in repertory
through July 28
Contemporary American Theater Festival
Marinoff Theater, Center for Contemporary Arts/II
62 West Campus Drive
Shepherdstown, West Virginia
2 hours with 1 intermission
Details and tickets
The actors get caught up in the goofy momentum and anarchy of the action, with Mr. Maskati ingratiating and sweet as the big kid Rahim, who is at once determined and gently doubting as an impending martyr. Miss Kakkar’s stoicism as Yalda proves an arresting counterpoint to Rahim’s softness, although she does display glints of prankish humor. Mr. Johnson portrays the leader as hilariously puffed up and un-self aware, while Mr. McKenzie dominates every scene he’s in as the stoner slacker desperate to salvage the situation and maybe even gain some instant celebrity from it.
It is when Mr. Kern veers from the TV sketch format that things go hopelessly awry. The ending seems to attempt a Martin McDonagh-style mingling of shock-value gore and humor—the darkest of the dark. However, Mr. Kern does not have Mr. McDonagh’s gift for rich, distinctive characters and hang-onto-every-word storytelling.
The four characters in Extreme Terrorism are too broadly drawn for you to care about them except on the most superficial level and the plot twists are pure sitcom formula so when the denouement gets all Quentin Tarantino, you wonder who changed the channel.
Modern Terrorism by Jon Kern . Directed by Ed Herendeen . Produced at the Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard