nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 8, 2006
The Unofficial New York Yale Cabaret closes out its very impressive first season with an experimental production of an experimental play, The Terrorist, by Howard Pflanzer. Go to the Laurie Beechman Theatre (the basement club-style space underneath West Bank Cafe on 42nd Street) with expectations of a raw and somewhat tentative first take on a provocative script and you will likely have an enjoyable and interesting experience.
Pflanzer's script is canny and timely. It's about a man named Frank who is suspected of being a terrorist by unnamed security organizations within the US government. There's a reason for this: Frank—whose demographics would not place him in one of the target categories for terrorism in this country at the moment—is behaving very suspiciously. He's built a mysterious device that he says is intended to make people safe but, to the uneducated eye at least, looks very much like a bomb. Furthermore, he's coerced his sometime girlfriend Claire into planting the device in a random and undisclosed location about a mile from his house.
A Secret Agent named Paula is deeply concerned about this, and Frank and Claire's respective bravura and anxiety following the initial "test" of Frank's device only make matters worse. Eventually Paula and Claire's boss, Roger (who has been recruited by other unnamed parties to keep an eye on Claire), hit the trail trying to figure out precisely what Frank is up to. Paula doesn't wait to get more than circumstantial evidence of Frank and Claire's alleged terror plot and as the play accelerates toward its end, things grow increasingly dangerous and grim.
The Terrorist embraces three genres in the course of its single act, morphing from broad political/social satire to entertaining thriller to deadly serious drama. What fascinates me most about the piece is that Pflanzer's focus appears not to be specifically the state of America post-9/11, but rather the inherent aspects of human nature that make such a state possible: with an attitude that feels at once bemused and cautionary, The Terrorist exposes the cloak-and-dagger instinct that probably lies within each of us. We love to play cops-and-robbers or cat-and-mouse. Particularly in the case of Roger, who genuinely is an innocent bystander in this tale, Pflazner's play reveals how easily and willingly—and perilously!—a person can surrender common sense to get caught up in conspiracies and plots that they don't understand and that may not even exist.
The play's tonal shifts don't feel quite smoothed out yet, and the pacing, under David Willinger's directorial hand, is slowier and fuzzier than it needs to be (note that I attended the very first performance, and that some of these issues will be worked out over time). Willinger uses the space beautifully, putting much of the action in the audience, with pursuers and pursuees winding their way around tables and chairs in the dark (and involving us more directly in what's going on). Joseph T. Barna's set design is less effective, with scene changes problematically slowing down a pace that should be constant and relentless.
Alice Connorton and Jonathan Teague Cook offer fine performances as Paula and Roger, but Miriam Tabb feels miscast as Claire; she doesn't convey either the sexiness or the grounded ditziness that the character seems to cry out for. George Tynan Crowley is terrific as Frank, making him equal parts graceless nerd and anti-social madman, keeping us nicely off balance as we try to decide for ourselves if this passionate, eccentric, and possibly harmless man is really a terrorist or not.