nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 18, 2005
Terrorism is a very dark, often sly comedy about the terrorist inside each and every one of us. It uses elements from the genres of farce and suspense thriller (which prove to be more overlapping that we might imagine) to play around with the notion of man's inhumanity to man and the kind of society that spawns and/or encourages such feelings. It's resolutely never political and always personal: the wicked and destructive impulses aired here arise from a search for gratification, though admittedly usually a perverse variety of same.
I don't think, however, that director Will Frears or co-producers Scott Elliott of The New Group and Kate Loewald of The Play Company would necessarily agree with the above assessment. Elliott and Loewald's program note—which includes the information that the play was written before 9/11/2001, as if events in our home town are going to suddenly fuel the artistic vision of a pair of writers who live in Siberia—says that "we think you'll find it deals with life as we know it right now." As if Americans live under constant fear of attack, the way that, say, people in Baghdad do.
In any event, the production they've mounted at the Clurman Theatre is a mire of sensationalism and portentousness. The play is a puzzle: in six scenes, the Presnyakov Brothers passel out clues to a dire and catastrophic set of events whose full nature and impact we can only understand when we've seen them all, key relationships and facts having been withheld from earlier segments and not divulged or fleshed out until later on. There's pleasure to be had in this, and also in the gleefully nasty events and admissions that comprise each of the scenes. But Frears and most of his cast members approach the material with such bleak gravity that the thing crawls where it might glide.
The one exception is Lola Pashalinski, who plays a deceptively sweet-and-helpless-looking old lady in Terrorism's most effective scene; sitting on a park bench with her pal (played by Laura Esterman) she gradually unveils first a horrifying intolerance and bigotry (talking venomously about these people and those people) and then a shocking aptitude and taste for doing evil in order to assure her own perceived safety and comfort. The attitudes that Pashalinski conveys here—accompanied always by the sense that she seems so nice, like one of us—go right to the core of what I think the Presnyakovs are going for in Terrorism; and it's effective, chilling, useful stuff.
But too often in this production the sense of ordinariness and reality is undercut by gratuitous effect. A scene involving a group of military men who have just been working in the wreckage of an exploded building features partial and/or full nudity by the four actors involved; this is enormously distracting and has no bearing on the matter at hand. Similarly, an early scene depicting a clandestine encounter between a bored housewife and a stranger whom she has invited to seduce her might be compelling if the actors were under the covers rather than naked (or half-naked) on top of them: it's hard to let yourself get caught up in the implications of a scary S&M scenario when you're worrying about Elizabeth Marvel getting hurt when she gets tied up and how she's managing the proximity of her scene partner's actual penis when he lays on top of her.
In other scenes, though the actors keep their clothes on, they seem to turn off their natural emotions. One involves a group in an office where a co-worker has just hanged herself, and I never felt the tension and/or release that would make it feel authentic instead of contrived; two more segments involve suspicious behavior at airports, but again there was nothing to connect us to it in a genuine way, with the suspense elements as overplayed and unsubtle as if Boris and Natasha had just dropped in from a Bullwinkle cartoon.
In the end, I was underwhelmed. I suspect that I wouldn't have been too compelled even if the staging's style more closely matched that of the text—I didn't see much evidence that this is that spectacular a script. Nevertheless, it's good to know what's on the minds of the folks who live on the other side of our planet. I'm glad to have gotten a look at the Presnyakovs' work and hope to see it again in more faithfully realized fashion sometime in the future.