Two Off Broadway plays, both unsatisfying in their own unique ways, are taking on Islamofascism, Islamophobia, and the assimilation agonies of anyone trapped between those unforgiving abutments. Both are designed to lance my distended white-liberal pieties, and neither can be accused of subtlety. One skirts melodrama; the other is lightly atrocious.
The light atrocity is Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them. (And I have absolutely no doubt its young, clever, ballsy author, Jon Kern, a wit from the Simpsons stable, will go on to write a real and perhaps even really good play someday.) This title has a Durangling sound to it and signals Big Ideas wrapped in Broad Comedy. A trio of bumbling jihadists — sweet, dim, would-be suicide bomber Rahim (Utkarsh Ambudkar), scheming small-time mastermind Qalalaase (William Jackson Harper), and humorless terror-war widow Yalda (Nitya Vidyasagar) — live in a shabby, if sitcom-spacious, New York City two-bedroom and plot to blow up the observation deck atop the Empire State Building. I give away nothing by revealing that the plan, involving Rahim, a crotch bomb, and some unpredictable boxer briefs, does not unfold according to Hoyle. Among the many wrinkles is a slacker-next-door neighbor, Jerome (Steven Boyer), who shambles his way into the extremists' midst.
Because Modern Terrorism hails from the corner of the culture that lives in daily fear of nihilistic jihad yet wants to acknowledge the role of the morally lazy, egoistic, what-me-imperialist West in helping to create it, Jerome helpfully turns out to be the most contemptible character of the lot. And because the aim of the play is to humanize the all-too-easily dehumanized, Rahim, it turns out, is not a hard-core zealot but a charming nerd who unwinds to John Williams's Star Wars score and dreams of Jedi-esque heroism and sacrifice — but who, deep down, really wants to live. Everybody wants to live, it turns out. Yalda's not really a bug-eyed, sexually frustrated harridan, seething beneath her hijab; she's just sad and angry about losing someone close to her. Qalalaase's after social justice and, of course, fame. TV rules apply here: reveal each character's basic adolescent loneliness and aspiration, and you create audience sympathy. Pepper their conversation with consumerist banalities — Netflix queue anxiety, Talmudic bickering over Star Wars — and the laughs just tumble out. Because, dayem, actual beliefs are scary, yo. And beside the point! Pop culture, the only true global hegemony left, reigns over everything, right? We're All the Same, etc etc.
With this "relate-ability" firewall in place, Kern feels free to indulge in the sort of corrective bad taste we've come to expect from edgy comedy, the "school of hard laughs" perfected by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. "Equal-opportunity offense" is how it's usually labeled, and under this banner, much pop-sophistry and ill-considered recklessness is committed. Modern Terrorism earns points for some expert zings ("If my wife were here," sighs Qalalaase, "no killing would get done"), and it flirts promisingly with the absurd: The best sustained moment is Qalalaase's gauzy, increasingly loony description of the Koranic utopia they're ushering in: "No animals will have odor! And fathers will not lie. And they will not teach lies. And fruit will make us orgasm. And cats will be as loyal as dogs. And dogs will be as quiet as cats. And everyone will pronounce my name right. And my youngest half-brother will not be homosexual." Kern knows his trade as a comedy writer; as a playwright, though, he is contrived, symmetrical, crude and, yes, perhaps even offensive.
Modern Terrorism is a cartoon capped with a Jacobean conclusion, one so badly miscalculated it reveals the foregoing hijinks as cheap and naïve. Directed like a multi-camera laffer by Peter Dubois, the play seeks, by turns, to mock and coddle characters it lacks the courage to know on any meaningful level. Backstories are tidy and brisk, disgorge-able in brief, snappy speeches, and designed to win just enough goodwill to justify whatever Shockingly Funny thing that happens next. There's good bad taste and bad bad taste, and this, I'm afraid, is the latter. Kern doesn't meet the standard set in his title: How we learn to love "them," it turns out, is by reducing them to laugh-track buffoons, then giving them just enough universal humanity to fit on a three-by-five card.
The deeper question here: Was Kern "authorized" to attempt this play in the first place? Personally, I don't believe in cultural ownership. I don't think you need to be black to write a black character or white to write a white one; and I don't think you need church dispensation to lampoon the Pope or God or Christ or the Prophet Muhammad, for that matter. But I do believe that artists and entertainers of integrity understand that the bar for excellence (and the potential for disaster) goes up exponentially when one steps outside one's natural and endemic sphere of cultural authority. For instance: I feel fairly comfortable kicking the South around, having grown up there. I feel entitled to address the many cultural shortcomings of conservative Protestant whites — though, admittedly, not quite as entitled as I might feel if I still lived there and attended church regularly. (Then, boy, oh boy, I'd REALLY give those smug cracker-barrel armchair imperialists both barrels.)
That's more or less how Wall Street lawyer Amir (The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi, grim, cagy, withholding) feels in Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced. Now comfortably upper-middle-class and nearing middle age, he regards the Pakistani fundamentalism of his upbringing with disgust and embarrassment, an embarrassment he feels free sharing, especially after a few belts of Scotch. When his broad-minded white wife (Heidi Armbruster) begs him to take the case of an imam arrested on terror charges, he balks, but eventually assents to placate her. This sets off a disastrous chain of events, culminating in one of those dinner parties from hell that playgoers generally expect with their programs. Disgraced is an assimilation tragedy and not a particularly delicately wrought one — the plot trap that snaps shut on Amir feels designed by a judgmental playwright, not a capricious cosmos — and the conclusions reached by Disgraced, if they'd been written by Sean Hannity instead of Ayad Akhtar, would be decried as offensive in the extreme. (By the way: I'd love to see a play by Hannity, but I doubt [unauthorized insult to reactionary Irish-Americans].) But the ache of Disgraced, the unmistakable distress call of a human being trapped haplessly between worlds, has stuck with me, even after its towering provocations have faded.