nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 15, 2004
Wrong Barbarians, Timothy Nolan's timely exploration of the personal politics of terror, confronts two very important issues. The first is the way that fear that often overrides rationality in times of uncertainty: in the play, Mrs. Stone, an intelligent, liberal-minded, clear-headed woman, finds herself becoming more and more worried as she observes the possibly odd behavior of a man seated at a nearby table in a coffee shop. He's just sitting alone reading a newspaper and occasionally talking on a cellphone; but he's got dark skin and he's wearing a Muslim skullcap: he must be one of them, she finds herself thinking.
The other issue in this play is the source of this fear. Mrs. Stone is a history teacher, and she believes that knowledge is the best cure for anxiety. Yet, post-9/11 life seems to be changing the rules: terror alerts and government warnings to be aware of our surroundings and to report suspicious activity have put her, with so many others, on edge. A pair of encounters with an FBI Special Agent named Reilly reveal the unsettling notion that the administration may indeed want its citizens perpetually in panic mode: it's easy to lead, Nolan suggests, when the led are living in fear.
Wrong Barbarians portrays our scary and shameful historical moment incisively—Nolan gets inside the heads of both Mrs. Stone and the man she thinks could well be a terrorist (whose name is Adam) with real specificity. At its best, the play captures the jumble of colliding notions and emotions that are conflicting most of us; there's a thought-provoking scene early on, for example, in which Adam is questioned by a pair of police officers (about the backpack that he accidentally left on the subway) while Mrs. Stone ponders the American flag pin that she has worn since 9/11 and what it signifies. To the FBI agent, she says, "You're the government. Tell me what to do." Her cry in the dark resonates powerfully.
Unfortunately, though the play's intentions and objectives are important and laudable, it doesn't fully succeed, at least in this production. The staging, by Vincent Marano, is sometimes problematic, as is Marano's lighting: the script plays and replays moments as scenarios form in Mrs. Stone's and Adam's minds, but it's not always clear whose reality we're viewing at any given time; there are also passages in which Adam remembers his father, a Master Sergeant in the U.S. Army, which feel digressive and beside the point. That said, Wrong Barbarians is nevertheless worth your time. Depending on where you are in the process of choosing or not choosing to be ruled by fear, this play may prove instructive, cathartic, or perhaps even both.
The actors—Patricia Sones (Mrs. Stone), Gil Deeble (Adam), Harry Burney (Adam's Father/Police Officer), Tod Engle (Mr. Tepper, one of Mrs. Stones' fellow teachers/Police Officer), and especially Gena Bardwell (Special Agent Reilly/Waitress)—all do commendable work.