Not since a couple of dark suits named Goldberg and McCann paid a call on a sensitive soul named Stanley has there been a more harrowing game of cat-and-mouse played out onstage as Yussef el Guindi’s drama, Back of the Throat. The 75-minute one-act, which premiered last year in San Francisco, is about a man trapped in his home by visitors, an absurdist premise to which Guindi adds the muscle — or baggage, depending on one’s artistic perspective — of contemporary political debate.
The setting is the cramped and cluttered apartment of a young Arab-American — some time, we’re told, “after the attacks.” Khaled (Ammar Mahmood) is at first gently, almost apologetically questioned by two government cops (Doug Newell and Anthony Di Novi), but the lawmen soon ratchet up their game, ignoring requests for them to leave and, then, taking off the gloves to do what interrogation cops do best. To them, everything in Khaled’s apartment is a red flag: the Koran his mother sent him, his books on firearms, his porn collection — even a music box that tinkles out “Oklahoma.” By play’s end, they’re pulling down Khaled’s pants to examine his penis for damning evidence. (In their zeal, the G-men somehow overlook a biography, sitting next to Khaled’s suspect laptop, of Black September founder Abu Nidal.) Khaled’s alibi becomes his mantra: He’s a fiction writer, and everything in his room is reference material for possible future use. Khaled, in turn, asks his tormentors two questions that writers have been asking cops since time began: What are you looking for, and who told you about me?
He never gets an answer to the first question (in this era when even a discarded paper bag can shut down an entire airport or freeway, it’s almost irrelevant), but Khaled eventually learns he appeared on the government’s radar when his ex-girlfriend, Beth (Vonessa Martin), following “the attacks,” talked to the feds after she began to look at everything about her ex’s behavior in a new, sinister light.
“It was more than what he was saying,” she says in hindsight. “It was an attitude. The way he looked.”
Two other women (both played by Martin) have a hand in spreading suspicions. Librarian Shelly recalls seeing Khaled meeting with another Arab, who is possibly Asfoor (Aly Mawji), the late jihadist mastermind of the suicide attacks, while stripper Jean also remembers Khaled’s attachment to this mysterious stranger.
Guindi’s title comes from Bartlett’s comment that pronouncing the Arabic “K” in Khaled’s name produces “that back-of-the-throat thing.” In a sense, the play’s angry message also comes from the back of the throat, as opposed to a place in the heart or a coolly reasoned intellect. This explains why some have found the play a little harsh or simplistic. Back of the Throat is certainly not perfect (the good-cop/bad-cop routine gets a little too jokey, and the story meanders during a superfluous scene set in Jean’s strip club), but critics have attacked it for the same reason that some people dismiss global warming — there’s only one side here, they say, and its claims are unverifiable.
Khaled’s experience, however, is both personal and universal. When Khaled exclaims, “This is still America and I will not be treated this way!” we feel like asking, “Brother, where have you been?” In his paranoid, claustrophobic encounter with authority, Khaled may as well be called “K.” On the other hand, toward the end of the evening, we’re not sure about Khaled’s claims of having no contact with Asfoor, and the story’s concluding moment, in which Asfoor addresses Khaled, is ambiguous. Did the dead terrorist really have a relationship with the struggling writer, or is Guindi suggesting that Asfoor’s true influence can only be felt posthumously in a newly repressive, xenophobic democracy?
Director Dámaso Rodriguez always keeps the show’s menace on the scale of personal nightmare instead of a PowerPoint lecture about police abuse against Muslims. His cast are up to their roles, with Mahmood particularly convincing as the frightened, angry and, ultimately, confused writer, and Di Novi and Newell turning in solid performances as rogue cops whose antics suddenly no longer seem quite so roguish.
The program notes for Sam Shepard’s The God of Hell are straightforward: “Early morning, the interior of a simple Midwestern farmhouse.” Nothing, however, is as simple as the interior of a Sam Shepard Midwestern farmhouse — not, at least, as envisioned by scenery designer John Iacovelli. His set for director Jason Alexander’s Geffen Playhouse production, with its antique ironing board, kitschy ceramics and vintage Mixmaster, seems more like the backdrop to a Martha Stewart special than the stage for a political farce. The one-act, written in 2004, is Shepard’s response to the starburst of flag-waving and paranoia that has followed 9/11. It is an angry, sterile piece of comedy with few laughs but plenty of deep-seated mourning for an America that might be irretrievably lost.
It opens on a Wisconsin farm couple, Frank and Emma (Bill Fagerbakke and Sarah Knowlton), as their wintry day begins. Frank’s whole existence seems tied to his heifers, while his somewhat ditsy wife goes about drowning her many houseplants with a watering pitcher. Soon, a stranger wearing red earmuffs appears at the door. He is Welch (Bryan Cranston), and resembles a methed-up version of Eugene O’Neill’s character Hickey — a glad-handing American salesman whose titanium samples case seems to contain endless quantities of Old Glory, banners and bunting, with which he proceeds to plaster Emma’s kitchen. Welch is full of good cheer and can-do patriotism which, in a play like this, can only mean he’s going to turn out to be one sinister son of a bitch.
Sure enough, he’s a government man working for a secret research project focused on plutonium’s effects on genetic mutation. (Pluto, as Welch reminds Frank, is “the god of hell.”) He’s here to retrieve one of the project’s guinea pigs, who happens to be Frank and Emma’s visiting houseguest, Haynes (Curtis Armstrong). Haynes, a rabbitty man who resembles economist Robert Reich, sends off blinding electrical charges whenever he touches people. These lighting projections, designed by Jason H. Thompson, give the production a playful jolt but, unfortunately, provide its only spark and illumination.
The problem with Shepard’s play is that, having exhausted its ability to spoof early on, it has nowhere to go. There’s not a moment of suspense, because we can easily discern where it’s headed — this isn’t a story where people make decisions, change opinions or overcome obstacles. Certainly not obstacles like Welch. Frank, Emma and Haynes are doomed from the moment Welch rings the doorbell. Nor are Alexander’s comic impulses the subtlest — his habit of cuing cattle moos nearly every time Frank mentions his heifers quickly grows tiresome, and his use of “The Star-Spangled Banner” adds new meaning to the word sledgehammer. Furthermore, it’s not enough that Welch decorates the kitchen in red, white and blue — Alexander makes sure he’s also wearing an American-flag necktie and, just in case we miss Emma’s dottiness, he has her speak in a goofy Fargo accent. For all these slapstick embellishments, Alexander steers a game cast along at a surprisingly poky pace — his 80-minute version is actually longer than most previous productions.
Still, it says a lot that a veteran American playwright — and self-described nonpartisan — such as Shepard has been so moved by the antics of the Bush administration that he has written a work brimming with rage and melancholy. When Frank sighs, “I miss the Cold War,” Shepard is not simply being ironic — there’s a genuine sadness for the loss of what he considers a time of perfection, much in line with the old Merle Haggard lament, “Are the Good Times Really Over.” To some, that time is simply an era of kitschy ceramics and vintage Mixmasters, but to Frank and Emma, as well as Khaled, it is a time before the government came knocking. ?
BACK OF THE THROAT | By YUSSEF EL GUINDI | Furious Theater Company at the PASADENA PLAYHOUSE’S BALCONY THEATER, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena | Through July 29 | (626) 356-PLAY
THE GOD OF HELL | By SAM SHEPARD | At GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood | Through July 30 | (310) 208-5454