How do you prove you aren’t an “interesting human being”?
Since he broke up with his girlfriend, Khaled’s lived in a dinky, book-clogged studio where he starts but can’t finish short stories. He’s got writer’s block so bad he doesn’t “feel solid” about anything. Enter two men in suits, without a warrant. Claiming to be government agents, they ask friendly questions (like how to pronounce his name: in the “back of the throat”). While one talks, the other snoops under the bed (that a porn mag?), in a chest of drawers (a well-used passport, hmmm...), the bathroom. They joke and describe their methods (“this is not an ethnic thing,” says Bartlett, the older of the two). In no time they make, to them at least, telling discoveries.
Along with books by international authors (a thick collection of Borges, the latest Pamuk), the duo spots a copy of the Koran and two texts in Arabic. But Khaled said he doesn’t know Arabic. In the minds of these carte blanche xenophobes, that puts him “neck deep in doo-doo” for an unnamed, 9/11-type disaster. Khaled, who shifts from amiable to paranoid, talks about having rights and wanting a lawyer. Neither Bartlett nor Carl blinks.
Yussef El Guindi’s Back of the Throat draws an invisible line down centerstage. Khaled went to the Eiffel Tower Club. People spotted him with Asfoor, who recently committed the terrorist act. Khaled’s ex-girlfriend, the least reliable witness on the planet, suspects collusion, either that or he was cheating on her. Whichever: give him the third degree. The agents revel in their ability to generate volcanoes from anthills. Thus the invisible line: Was Khaled involved or suffering guilt by propinquity? And thus his need not to be an interesting human being.
The interrogation moves from casual chat to hard-nosed torment. Bartlett and Carl play smiley agent/thug agent and unearth what may, or may not, be evidence. They make “homeland security” an oxymoron. Also, like today’s slash-and-burn media hacks, who jumped from trashing one black genius, Michael Jackson, to trashing another, Tiger Woods (but, of course, that wasn’t “ethnic” either, was it now?) they see “right to privacy” and read “enquiring minds need to know.” They brim with information entitlement.
Back of the Throat runs in repertory with Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue in Ion Theatre’s new space. The company knocked out a back wall, installed a chevron of seats and sophisticated lighting, and, as both plays demonstrate, created a handsome, flexible black-box theater.
Much of the play has a haunting, it-couldn’t-happen-here quality. But it also has an unreal level of comedy. Among other things, Bartlett and Carl are a clown act. They banter like wannabe vaudevillians. Thanks to Sara Beth Morgan’s smart direction, neither Walter Ritter (Bartlett) nor Tom Hall (Carl) overplays the shtick, but it detracts from their otherwise strong, menacing work.
Brian Abraham makes Khaled an appropriately tough read, treading the invisible line throughout (he also has one of the play’s most telling lines: “20 degrees of separation makes everyone a suspect”). Rhys Greene does a fine cameo as Asfoor’s slowly seething ghost, and DeNae Steele plays several women, one of whom does a pole dance in a club to Neil Diamond’s “America.”
Alive and Well, in a world premiere at the Old Globe, is neither. Kenny Finkle’s lightweight, relentlessly talky play pits a Yankee journalist, Carla, against rebel Zachariah, a Civil War reenactor. Zach’s convinced that the “Lonesome Soldier” — the last living Confederate (either a ghost or he’s found the Fountain of Youth) — hangs out somewhere along General Lee’s westward retreat from Petersburg to Appomattox. As they rough it and lose their way, differences (she’s cold and always right; he’s romantic and weepy) dissipate.
The writing’s occasionally funny. After a quaff or twain of moonshine, Zach assures Carla, “I’m not drunk, Ms. Keenan, I’m pacified.” But like so much of the Old Globe’s timid play selection of late, it’s almost all surface and merely aims to please.
Except for an air-conditioning system that still over-compensates — shivering patrons cover floor vents with their programs — the new Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre struts its stuff with Alive and Well. Robin Sanford Roberts’s set, lit from numerous angles by Michael Gottlieb, is a bas relief topo map of the Blackwater River area around Lynchburg. Mesas become tables and chairs; at other times Carla and Zach loom over the land like symbolic giants. Shelly Williams’s gray Confederate uniform for Zach and Union navy blue for Carla look authentic (and appropriately itchy).
Kelly McAndrew and James Knight sustain a nice byplay as the unlikely couple. But, except for a funny game of comebacks, the weak second act dwindles into two long speeches in which the pair blurs differences. In a third, equally facile speech, both gaze at sunlit Appomattox and hope the country can accept differences as well.
Next time: Cygnet’s Sweeney Todd: hottest show in town.
Back of the Throat by Yussef El Guindi
Ion Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
Directed by Sara Beth Morgan; cast: Brian Abraham, Rhys Greene, Tom Hall, Walter Ritter, DeNae Steele; scenic design, Matt Scott; costumes, Courtney Smith; lighting and sound, Claudio Raygoza
Playing through April 10; Thursday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. 619-600-5020.
Alive and Well by Kenny Finkle
Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
Directed by Jeremy Dobrish; cast: Kelly McAndrew, James Knight; scenic design, Robin Sanford Roberts: costumes, Shelly Williams: lighting, Michael Gottlieb: sound, Paul Peterson
Playing through April 25; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623.