Maybe we have too many untouchables. Maybe too often we deal with difficult situations by quarantining them to irreverence, making them off limits to humorous examination through any kind of medium.
Modern Terrorism, a play by Jon Kern running now at Second Stage Theatre, tries to work against that collective instinct by exploring, well, the funny side of terrorism. For the most part, it succeeds.
The play follows a nascent terrorist cell in New York intent on carrying out some kind of deadly attack in the city. William Jackson Harper shines as leader Qalalaase, a wannabe Bin Laden who laments that his importance (“If only I wasn’t so valuable alive!”) forces him to become the mastermind behind, but not the executor of, the suicide attacks he orchestrates.
Utkarsh Ambudkar plays a believably simple-minded but somehow sympathetic Rahim, the 20-year-old college student content with martyring himself in whichever manner Qalalaase thinks best. Opposite him is Yalda (Nitya Vidyasagar), a widow whose husband’s unjustified death at the hands of American soldiers has pushed her to sign onto Qalalaase’s plot.
Playing the most fun role of the quartet, Steven Boyer completely owns (maybe a little bit too completely) the spaced-out hipster douche, Jerome, who lives upstairs, stumbling upon and sending into disarray the terrorists’ plans.
The dialogue suffers early in the play, relying too heavily on obvious or silly punch lines. An entire scene is devoted to a character’s balls hurting, a schtick that hasn’t really worked since America’s Funniest Home Videos.
Because of this, it’s easy to assume the rest of the play won’t be much better. But by the third or fourth scene, the humor has risen to a higher level, whether or not it’s possible to pinpoint exactly when that transcendence took place. And by intermission, I found myself eagerly looking forward to the rest.
That early tone allows one to underestimate the play as lightweight, somewhat nonsensical and fun. But in its heart it’s a dark comedy, a revelation that sneaks up so gradually on the viewer that it’s shocking to think back to earlier fluff scenes and realize they were part of the same play.
Some of its best comedic lines come as digs at the logic of terrorism (“If we are going to maintain the focus needed to destroy the global conspiracy of American hegemony, we can’t be getting paranoid,” Qalalaase lectures), or at American culture (“You want to learn to hate America, be American,” was Jerome’s observation that got the most applause from the younger audience the night I attended).
And there are poignant moments as well. Jerome questions the terrorists’ fixation on New York, making the disturbingly logical argument that attacking a small town in the South would cause much more panic nationally. Yalda’s wrenchingly tragic history, while evoking sympathy with her anger, still allows the playgoer to argue against her subsequent motivation for wanting to kill innocent people.
But at its core, Modern Terrorism is an exercise in learning to laugh at what is, in real life, a terrifying, ongoing threat. With New York a constant target for attacks, much of the plot hits very, very close to home—indeed, a 21-year-old student just made headlines for attempting to blow up the Federal Reserve in a plan strikingly similar to Rahim’s.
Modern Terrorism is at its best when it sticks to this core. Other distractions—such as the unlikely and needless romance between Rahim and Yalda, which seems forced—work against the play, but ultimately not enough to overwhelm the good parts.
Filtered of those distractions, this play could be a surprising source of relief to the New Yorker needing, perhaps without knowing it, an outlet to laugh at the subconscious worries he carries with him on his commute to the city. But even as it is, it still does a pretty good job of providing that.