Those who feel that theater doesn’t take risks probably haven’t seen Modern Terrorism. A four-door farce meets Jihadist suicide mission, the play is equal parts comedic and chilling. What it does best is portray how in the midst of plotting an attack, the habits of terrorists are familiar and so very much like our own. They rent Zipcars, make playlists, complain about FedEx, eat Rice Krispies, and reference scenes from “Star Wars”. The play’s subtitle, “They Who Want to Kill Us, and How We Learn to Love Them”, has resonance in those moments of familiarity. And while loving a terrorist may seem too outlandish to consider, playwright Jon Kern encourages us to spend time with them before we judge. The most affable one we meet in the sparse Ikea-furnished apartment that serves as their plotting cell is Rahim, a sweet-faced, good-natured young man who incongruously is the mission’s suicide bomber. Played by Indian actor Utkarsh Ambudkar (also known from the improv group Freestyle Love Supreme and a capella film “Pitch Perfect”), Rahim is driven more by a craving for approval than any overarching animosity toward Americans. Also plotting the mission is Yalda whose antipathy toward America began when her husband was accidentally killed by a drone on their wedding day. The third terrorist, Qala, a Somalian, stands apart from Rahim and Yalda because he acts out of visceral ideology rather than personal motivation. As a result, he’s the only character onstage who provokes more fear than empathy.
Much of the play’s comic relief rests on the only non-terrorist and the only white guy. Kern cleverly chooses to make the character who has the most in common with the audience a wayward stoner type: not quite the paragon of American exceptionalism. Jerome (or 3A as his extremist neighbors call him in an effort to dehumanize) stumbles upon their plot, and while acknowledging that he has become a liability, finds himself surprisingly enticed by the hyper-focused, ambition-oriented spirit of terrorists. He even makes himself useful to their operation by buying huge quantities of propane without raising suspicions. Because white crazies remarkably don’t arouse suspicion.
For his part, Jerome does dispense a few pearls of wisdom to his new compatriots. He notes that while terrorist acts shake us up as a nation, they don’t bring down the whole country. What does bring down the whole country, he posits? Goldman Sachs.
The play, for all its darkness, is really funny. Kern lightens the mood by mocking the very notion of suicide bombers. Rahim expresses the hope that nothing bad happens to him today so that he can die as scheduled tomorrow. Admittedly, some viewers may be put off by the show’s unbearable lightness. But I think it would be a mistake to think that Peter Dubois’ direction intends to ridicule a serious situation. There’s an air of absurdism to the work. We laugh amidst nervousness, between moments of held breath and heavy sigh.
Kern’s brilliance is his decision to place two key moments off stage: Rahim’s first bombing attempt and Qala’s fiery exit toward a swarm of police (the final scene of the play). In both cases, we don’t know exactly what happens. And I think that confusion is the whole point. Most of us will never understand a terrorist’s mindset. And it’s cathartic to leave the theater remembering that.