WHERE IS DR. STRANGELOVE WHEN YOU NEED HIM?
The best thing about Joe Kern’s Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want To Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them is its title. And if it bears a close resemblance to the title of a famous Stanley Kubrick satire, it is purely intentional. Indeed, before the play starts, Vera Lynn could be heard singing “We’ll Meet Again,” not so subtly implying that Kern’s play will start where Kubrick’s film ended.
The premise of Kern’s play is delicious: a power-hungry terrorist who relies too heavily on the internet to bolster his own ambitions, assisted by a hard-working and slightly melancholy young woman, engages a somewhat reluctant suicide bomber to blow up the Empire State Building. But a glitch means that new bomb parts need to be ordered, which are then delivered to the apartment above theirs, where lives a zonked-out innocent who brings the package to them in hopes that he will make new friends, but who becomes their hostage when they discover he has opened their package to see what was inside. Although he is clueless about the ingredients in the box, his life is threatened by the inept terrorists; he then becomes involved in their scheme until he once again becomes disposable.
The play delicately glides along a nice comic edge: close to danger but too amused with itself to go over the precipice into real danger. Peter Dubois, who directs with a sure touch, follows the play’s shifting moods – from comedy to human drama to a climax that seems less and less inevitable as we peek into the lives of these four misfits and learn, as the title says, to love them. But no matter how hard Dubois tries to create a unifying atmosphere, the play’s perverse quirkiness seems too lightweight, unable to not surrender to the sense that this is, despite the seriousness of its theme, a situation comedy.
Kern and Dubois are helped immeasurably by their actors (is there no end to the number of talented actors in New York theater?) who sometimes make leaps in characterization that the play doesn’t seem to ask for: William Jackson Harper, who creates a wonderful one-note terrorist leader. Nitya Vidyasagar, the sole woman, and Utkarsh Ambudkar, as the potential suicide, provide a lovely contrast in longing as the relationship develops. And Steven Boyer as the guy in the upstairs apartment is a sensational combination of eagerness, gentleness, panic, hysteria, and sheer craziness, which best captures the most consistent mood of the play: comedy laced with dread. Yet nobody can really keep the play from ultimate weightlessness.
And what is perhaps most disturbing is that the shocking and appalling note on which the play ends seems less an attempt to ground the play in reality than to take away the only comfort we feel spending time with these characters. And if you’re going to kill the thing you love, you’d better not get too sentimental about it. Alexander Dodge’s pretty and airy Ikea-decorated apartment is also, upon closer inspection, in need of a paint job. With the divine exception of Steven Boyer, those dirty corners accurately tell us more about the goals of Modern Terrorism than almost anyone else involved manages to do.
photos by Joan Marcus
2econd Stage Theater
scheduled to end on
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