An airport is closed by a bomb scare, an explosion rocks an apartment complex, grandmothers trade poisoning tips, soldiers snicker at body-part photos, and suicides are only momentarily distracting in the Studio Theatre’s new comedy, Terrorism. Yes, you read that right. Comedy is what Russia’s Presnyakov Brothers—30-somethings Oleg and Vladimir—are selling in their provocative, if ultimately shrug-inducing, six-scene evening.
Written before the events of 9/11 but obviously benefiting from—and taking advantage of—the added frisson that “terrorism” now provides as a title, the play arrives hot on the heels of last month’s American premiere in Manhattan. It is not a hostage melodrama, except in the most general of senses, but rather an episodic chronicle of a day in the life of a society plagued by domestic, everyday violence. The episodes are set in an airport, a bedroom, an office, a playground, a barracks, and finally, a plane, and are linked by a character known as the Man (an effectively nebbishy James Konicek).
We meet him at the airport as he discovers that all takeoffs and landings have been canceled while the authorities investigate some bags that have been left on the tarmac. He and his fellow strandees debate just how this affects them before the scene shifts to a bedroom, where a bored couple adds a little spice to an illicit affair with a rape fantasy. From there, the action moves to an office, where employees are engaged for about a nanosecond by the discovery that one of their number has hung herself in their “relaxation room,” then to a playground, where two grandmothers trade murderous familial survival strategies while seated on a seesaw, and then to a bomb squad’s locker room, presided over by a martinet of a colonel, before arriving back on the tarmac as the Man finally takes his seat on the plane.
These seemingly disparate scenes are linked in a fashion quickly revealed to be as obvious and schematic as the play’s observations are facile. “This is the beginning of a chain reaction,” says someone, noting that terrorists needn’t actually explode grenades and truck bombs to make a terrorized public feel vulnerable. “They don’t explode in the here and now; they explode later, in each person.” Well, yes…but does that qualify as insight?
Keith Alan Baker’s unevenly acted staging dresses up the proceedings with blaring techno-pop, sliding Lucite panels, and a black-white-and-gray costume palette but doesn’t lend the show much comic oomph. The bedroom scene lacks sizzle; the playground sequence teeter-totters through its jests; the office shenanigans seem endless. In fairness, the Presnyakov Brothers’ notion of a hilarious joke is to have an office manager scream hysterically for calm.
Great title, though.
The second installment of the trilogy that the Scena Theatre is calling Classics Made Easy is a little too easy. Robert McNamara has penned I, Cyclops as the one-eyed giant’s first-person (er…first-monster?) retelling of the Homeric tale of Odysseus’ narrow escape. Fairness and balance require both sides of the story, right?
This seems a promising-enough concept, and the fact that a sunglassed, business-suited Cyclops is asleep under a table as the audience enters his cave at the Warehouse Theater suggests that McNamara and actor Brian Hemmingsen—who’ve collaborated on quite a bit of Beckett, Pinter, and Ionesco over the years—will be giving the ancient tale an absurdist workout. A static-filled TV screen in one corner of the cave makes clear that other one-eyed monsters are being referenced, and indeed, when Hemmingsen finally awakens and snarls, “The bastard got me,” he might be a Sopranos gangster gone classical.
Alas, the spareness that generally makes Scena’s absurdist excursions intriguing is nowhere to be found in McNamara’s script. Poor Cyclops is required to run on at the mouth for some 75 minutes, dispensing vitriol about Odysseus (“that Greek scumbag motherfucker”), secondhand platitudes (“If it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all”), and turns of phrase that even his flock of sheep wouldn’t mistake for wit (“I’m eyeless on my eye-land”), all of which gets old long before he’s prepared to bid us farewell.
Hemmingsen does what he can with accents—Lorre, Brando, DeNiro—and sneers even the blandest of lines as if they amounted to something. And he’s giving a remarkably physical performance, at one point lying on his back atop the table to face the audience upside down, with crisscrossed Band-Aids covering the eye that is no more. But his bag of tricks is not bottomless. On a few occasions, when he adopts an upper-crusty, Noel Coward– esque demeanor for a line or two, the actor hints at a read on the material that might have proved more rewarding. If Cyclops were a sophisticated gentleman-shepherd, erudite of manner and startled at the rudeness of the Greek adventurers who refused to stay for a dinner at which they were to be the main course, there might be a bit of surprise to the evening. But as things stand, the monster is back to growling, snapping, and gnashing teeth within a few seconds, and there are only so many ways to inflect a snarl.CP