Rules of Engagement

"What I really resent," sneers Carl, the brutish, Arabic-spouting interrogator, "is what you force us to become." And therein lies the transference of guilt and responsibility that, for many in power today, seems to sanction some, if not all, of the unspeakable acts that are part of the American war on terror. Yussef El Guindi's Back of the Throat is a provocative and harrowing critique of that act of transference, centering on the confrontation between two presumed government agents and a young Middle-Eastern immigrant, Khaled (Adel Akhtar), whom they suspect had an integral part in the 9/11 attacks. In order for the production to expose the (il)logic of Abu Ghraib and wiretapping, it requires its antagonists—Carl (Jamie Effros) and his Southern sophisticate partner, Bartlett (Jason Guy)—to self-consciously convey the bureaucratic tedium of privacy invasion and torture.

Much of the dialogue between Carl and Bartlett deals with interrogation tactics and their justification. El Guindi mines corporate-speak, often to comic effect: If a subject screams for longer than ten consecutive seconds or if his vital organs are pummeled directly, the methods used against him are not warranted, but if those narrow guidelines are followed….

In Khaled, a bookish introvert, we hear the voice of the unjustly accused. The production succeeds at being simultaneously provocative and entertaining in large part because of Akhtar's strong, deeply resonant performance; his Khaled is immediately likable, eliciting our empathy and concern.

Downstairs at the Flea is a long, narrow theater space that frames the action like a diorama or a letterboxed film. Audiences sit snuggly in one of only two equally long rows, with the actors merely feet away from them. A short wall, against which Khaled is repeatedly thrown and pushed, separates the stage from the rows of chairs. This kind of intimate space also works to communicate the production's immediacy. We are voyeurs, passive and silent, watching as this man, as much a citizen as any of us, has his rights systematically stripped from him.

Although the Flea's artistic director, Jim Simpson, who directed this production, efficiently works flashbacks into the narrative, using every bit of the space to its fullest potential, I wish he could have coaxed as strong a performance from his other actors as he does with Akhtar. Jamie Effros is believable enough and does fine as the more physically intimidating agent. Jason Guy's Bartlett, however, is incongruously slapstick, at times almost a sadistic, Southern Inspector Clouseau.

Bandar Albuliwi dutifully plays Asfoor, a dead Arab man connected to 9/11, with whom Khaled may or may not have had a relationship. And Erin Roth plays three separate women who give accounts of their interactions with Khaled. While her librarian is adequate, she does best as the spurned girlfriend; her over-the-top stripper is funny, but the laughs are cheap and keep the character from fully being the voice of ordinary American fear and distrust. Perhaps the fault lies with El Guindi's script, which, for all its critical strengths, artistically relies too heavily on cartoonish caricatures.

In the play's final scene, Asfoor speaks of the dominance of the English language, which does not have the "back of the throat" sound that Arabic does. He describes his desire to learn English so he can participate in the most basic sense, and how his anger grew when that participation was denied him. Back of the Throat is an excellent addition to the dialogue we must have about the war on terror and the investigation of that war's effects on us.

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