This theater image released by The Hartman Group shows, from left, Steven Boyer, Utkarsh Ambudkar and Nitya Vidyasagar, in a scene from “Modern Terrorism,” currently performing off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre in New York. (AP Photo/The Hartman Group; Joan Marcus)
NEW YORK (AP) — Ignore the title, if you can. As the name for a play, “Modern Terrorism” is probably off-putting to a lot of potential theater-goers.
But Jon Kern’s new satire, fully titled “Modern Terrorism, Or They Who Want To Kill Us and How We Learn To Love Them,” is actually pretty funny. Sure, the humor is often dark, but the dialogue zings with irony, wry political points and amusing pop culture references, and the actors have comedic skills that render some of the would-be terrorists quite sympathetic.
Peter DuBois briskly directs the lively, risk-taking Second Stage Theatre production of Kern’s mishap-laden comedy, which opened Thursday night. Three would-be terrorists based in a New York City apartment are hindered by generally farcical complications, including the bumbling intrusions of their unsuspecting, stoner-dude American neighbor.
DuBois creates an air of constant uncertainty, as off-beat situations and humor alternate with expressions of genuinely deadly intent that seems, however, destined not to be fulfilled. As Americans in general and New Yorkers in particular have had a decade of hearing about real-life, mostly-foiled bomb plots, Kern’s facetious depiction of inept terrorists could almost be a success if he hadn’t lost track of his light-hearted tone along the way.
The laughs burst from the start, as the Somali-born group leader Qala, (William Jackson Harper), works on a painful crotch bomb inside the briefs of his suicide-bomber recruit. Harper’s intense seriousness is comically effective, and contrasts nicely with the naive, optimistic, college-age bomber, Rahim, he has found in an Internet chat room.
Utkarsh Ambudkar has a scene-stealing, rubbery face and wears a sweet demeanor that makes Pakistani-born Rahim as appealing as a puppy. He makes innocent remarks about things that will happen in his future, and his tentative yearnings for fellow terrorist Yalda are quite charming.
Completely serious about “the work,” which is to blow up lots of people on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, Qala makes inaccurate, paranoid overstatements that Harper intones with wide-eyed ferocity. Speaking about a missing FedEx package containing a bomb part, he proclaims, “This — like all things — mired in corruption.”
Nitya Vidyasagar provides focused expressiveness and complexity as Yalda, a young Pakistani-American widow. The only one of the group who reveals a compelling personal reason for wanting to kill Americans in big explosions, she says bitterly, “If the goal were body counts, al-Qaida would just invest in KFC.”
Steven Boyer is a hilariously antic man-child as Jerome, their slacker neighbor, who gets entangled in their plans. Boyer mines every line for verbal and physical humor, constantly squirming around and contorting his face as if just the effort to think is taxing for Jerome.
As the first mission goes awry, Qala has a violent tantrum about being mocked on the Internet as a failure, and Jerome steps up to save his own skin, saying he can help them “’cause I don’t look Muslim-y.” Throughout the play, Kern scores points about the ordinariness of terrorists in deft touches, as with several bondings over Star Wars movies.
Kern also persistently jabs at social issues, often through Jerome, who helpfully observes that the terror cell has an “inconsistent ethos” and adds, “But I don’t know why you’re so obsessed with destroying America, when America is taking care of that itself.”
The shocking finale is disappointingly weak, and lacks the intelligent spirit of the preceding comedy. Despite providing a lot of laughs and biting social commentary, it’s Kern who finishes with an inconsistent ethos.