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Just Cause

This dark comedy about a group of would-be terrorists does not capitalize on its satiric potential.

By New York City
Raul Sigmund Julia, Alex Herrald, and Katherine Folk-Sullivan
in Just Cause
(© Dan Applegate)
Raul Sigmund Julia, Alex Herrald, and Katherine Folk-Sullivan
in Just Cause
(© Dan Applegate)
Writer/director Zack Russell's dark comedy about a group of would-be terrorists, Just Cause, now receiving its world premiere at the Flea Theater, has loads of satiric potential. The title has an amusing double meaning, as it alludes to both a zealot's belief and a slacker's reason for doing anything -- or nothing. Unfortunately, the playwright does not always make the necessary connections to allow the audience to get the most out of the work.

In the piece, homeland security specialist Martha Blackwater (Cynthia Whalen) conspires with an unnamed police officer (Sean McIntyre) and the duplicitous August (Greg Engbrecht) to form a terrorist cell out of a group of twenty-somethings with seemingly nothing better to do with their lives. However, the playwright never really lets the audience in on the reasons for such machinations, nor does he go into any detail as to why these new recruits -- who are characteristically supported by their parents or some other individual besides themselves -- are the perfect candidates to be set up for a fall.

The cell is initially comprised of Michael (Wilton Yeung), whose large apartment serves as de facto headquarters; Anna (Katherine Folk-Sullivan), who lives with her banker boyfriend; married couple Tommy (Tommy Crawford) and Allison (Betsy Lippitt); and Helen (Kate Michaud), a waitress/struggling actress.

The group later expands to also include established terrorist Paul (Ian Quinlan) and army veteran Frank (Raul Sigmund Julia), with people hovering on the sidelines including Tommy's mentally challenged sister (Crystal Arnette), Michael's drug addict roommate Coco (Allison Buck), Frank's army buddy Jack (Alex Herrald), and a variety of other characters (who are all played by Eric Folks).

Russell has drawn his inspiration from Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1979 film The Third Generation, and it's only if you have some familiarity with that work that can you get an idea of what the playwright is going for, or the reasons for the inclusion of certain moments in the play such as the neophyte terrorists making fun of Jack for his reading material. In fact, Russell closely follows the basic trajectory of the film's storyline, about a similar group of terrorists in Germany; he just hasn't taken all the necessary steps to reinvent it for his characters and their new context in 21st-Century America.

There are a few darkly comic moments in the play that attempt to do this, such as a game of charades in which one of the newbie terrorists mimes "Abu Ghraib." But too often, there's not enough bite in the dialogue, and the characters' relationships and motivations need to be defined further.

Folk-Sullivan is the standout in the ensemble, with a strong presence and a clear internal journey for Anna, whose dissatisfaction with her personal life fuels her actions. McIntyre projects a seediness that seems quite appropriate for his crooked cop. Engbrecht's fey mannerisms for the occasionally cross-dressing August are also memorable, even if it isn't clear what the playwright/director is trying to do with the character -- or, ultimately, the play as a whole.


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