There’s real-life truth and there’s theatrical truth, and in Jon Kern’s ever-darkening comedy, Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them (we’ll just call it MT from here on, shall we?) the line blurs discomfitingly. Now if you wish to avoid spoilers, I’ll get some basic info and production particulars out of the way first. MT is indeed a play about terrorists, Muslim terrorists at that, planning a symbolic and high profile attack to occur in the Empire State Building in a post-9/11 world. They are the leader, African Muslim Qala (William Jackson Harper); his female assistant, Arab Muslim Yalda (Nitya Vidyasagar); and their designated martyr, the willing and oddly guileless Star Wars fan, Rahim (Utkarsh Ambudkar). Clowns in the way that only zealots can be, they plan and prepare from a cheap two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, tending to screw up over stupid details. Intruding and eventually insinuating into the picture is their upstairs neighbor, a young, white stoner named Jerome (Steven Boyer).
Most of the audience finds the show pretty funny along the way—it may be worth noting, the author is currently a staff writer on The Simpsons—and under the direction of Peter DuBois, the comedy is delivered in the best way such comedy can be delivered: played low-key, realistically and for real stakes. Never a false move or a wink to the audience. And that’s all good. But some experience an unpleasant aftertaste nonetheless.
You who wish to avoid spoilers—go now. You who will continue reading; I won’t spoil that much, yet I will spill something that risks coloring how you approach the play. Or if. So everybody have one list think before reading on.
If you’re committed to continue—here we go:
Comedy though it may be, MT is stll about terrorists. Clowns though its characters may be, they are still intended murderers. Kern doesn’t romanticize them. Or the kind of fates that inevitably befall them.
Here, though, is where the line between real life and theatrical truth gets drawn.
He doesn’t present his characters with dispassionate disdain, as, say, Joe Orton did in his black comedies. No, Kern seems to like his characters, even “respect” them insofar as he makes them human, funny, sad and capable of eliciting empathy. So the audience starts to bond with them.
And come that moment when Kern’s play says—implicitly—Why did you think bad things wouldn’t happen just because my characters are clowns? Terrorists are always clowns. And they are always also human [read that subtitle again folks]. That is my point—there is a gasp from the audience. For some of them it is a gasp of betrayal.
Real truth is: bad things happen to terrorists. Theatrical truth is: an author makes a pact with an audience by creating a mood, a tone and an expectation based on “permissions” he establishes at the top of the play. And while it stretches my premise to say that Kern gives you no warning clues at all, they’re rendered minor and perfunctory next to the delineation in which he makes the characters weirdly lovable. And then he violates the pact; the ending seems like something out of a very different, even darker comedy. Or drama. And it seems unnecessary; as if he’s nailing home a point just to make sure we didn’t miss its milder manifestation earlier. As if by finding these fictional characters weirdly almost adorable, we ourselves would condone what they’re about. As if taking us to task for being seduced, the way they themselves have been seduced into fanaticism.
And it will, I think, keep MT from finding a wider, more appreciative audience. Because, mark my words, Mustafateers: it doesn’t matter how groovy a play is almost until the end. If it violates the understanding it has established, it not only hurts characters for whom the audience has suspended enough disbelief to feel affection; it makes the audience feel a little foolish for having expended the energy, for having bought into a disingenuous bill of goods. (You can hear it in the curtain call applause at MT; there’s a certain enthusiasm for the actors, but it comes with effort, through a sense of drained energy. Generally a comedy that makes an audience laugh that much has no trouble getting an explosive hand—pun intended).
And not a play on earth, no matter how good or well-done, ever recovers from that.
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