Adeel Akhtar and Jason Guy in Back of the Throat
(Photo © Max Ruby)
Adeel Akhtar and Jason Guy in Back of the Throat
(Photo © Max Ruby)
Of all the plays I've seen dealing with the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Back of the Throat is by far the most troubling. Written by Arab-American playwright Yussef El Guindi, the work at first seems to hit upon familiar territory related to the loss of civil liberties following the attacks on American soil. But it quickly becomes a much more complex piece -- one that is sure to challenge both liberal and conservative audiences alike.

Khaled (Adeel Akhtar) is an Arab-American writer who is being visited by two government agents, Bartlett (Jason Guy) and Carl (Jamie Effros). At first, Khaled is fully cooperative, although he's unsure what the agents are looking for. They soon notice several "suspicious" items in Khaled's cramped apartment, including his stash of pornography, the Koran, and a book on assassinations. Khaled argues that the items in question may appear suspect, but that they need to be seen in context. Bartlett, on the other hand, states simply that "a person is reflected by what he owns."

Things kick into high gear as we find out that the agents' investigation into Khaled's life is not mere racial profiling, as it initially appears. They have good reason to think that he's linked to a now-dead terrorist named Asfoor (Bandar Albuliwi). The play cuts back and forth between the present, the past, and "what if" scenarios that seem to support the idea that Khaled and Asfoor have met up in the past. The specifics of their interaction, however, are unclear.

Under Jim Simpson's taut direction, the production is a thought-provoking and compelling thriller. Audience sympathies shift as Khaled's guilt or innocence becomes increasingly hard to determine. It seems likely that he's hiding something, which seems to give some amount of justification to the behavior of Bartlett and Carl. Still, the tactics of the government agents become more and more dubious, culminating in an action that seems horrifyingly violating -- especially considering that Khaled has been neither arrested nor formally accused of a crime.

Akhtar delivers a grounded, believable performance as the mild-mannered Khaled. As the play progresses, he displays a range of emotions from nervousness to fear to pain to shock. Guy has a strong presence, but his cartoonish Southern accent detracts from his overall performance. On the other hand, Effros is pitch-perfect; the pain in his voice as Carl both physically and verbally abuses Khaled seems real. "I personally hate this, you know that" he says. "I hate it when I have to beat the shit out of someone because then by an act of willful horror, whose effect on my soul I can only imagine, I have to shut out everything good about me to do my job to defend and protect." It's a complex positioning that makes his character sympathetic despite his outward actions.

Erin Roth, who plays three different women in the production, shows promise but has not mastered the accents she attempts to use to differentiate her characters. She's best as Khaled's ex-girlfriend Beth, which she performs in what is presumably her natural manner of speech. Albuliwi has a penetrating stare that is both soulful and disconcerting, and his halting vocal delivery and soft Arabic accent lend him a more sensitive air than what we might normally associate with a terrorist. Meanwhile, Michael Goldsheft's mostly naturalistic set utilizes the small space of the Flea Theatre's downstairs theater to good effect. The work of lighting designer Benjamin C. Tevelow and costume designer Erin Elizabeth Murphy also support the production.

At times, Back of the Throat is an uncomfortable viewing experience. The show plays on our fears and anxieties, even as it forces the audience to consider the complexities involved in the U.S. government's crackdown on terrorism. And while its conclusion confirms certain facts, it still allows enough ambiguity to spark some lively debates as people leave the theater.