William Jackson Harper and Utkarsh Ambudkar in <i>Modern Terrorism</i>
William Jackson Harper and Utkarsh Ambudkar in Modern Terrorism
(© Joan Marcus)
In the wake of reports of a man being arrested for allegedly plotting to blow up a van outside of the Federal Reserve in New York, a play like Jon Kern's Modern Terrorism, Or They Who Want To Kill Us and How We Learn To Love Them, now at Second Stage Theatre under Peter DuBois' direction, could very well be the tonic for New Yorkers with jangled nerves.

Unfortunately, this meandering, shrill comedy about a group of terrorists ineptly planning to bomb the Empire State Building proves to be a tiresome and frequently baffling experience.

Kern does certainly grab audiences with the show's opening moments as he introduces the zealously anti-American Qala (William Jackson Harper), who is putting the final touches on an explosive device that's tucked in the underwear and strapped to the genitalia of one his co-conspirators, the younger, slightly dim Rahim (Utkarsh Ambudkar). And with every gag about perspiration in Rahim's crotch and the wires pinching and pulling at his pubic hair, snickers mix with winces (particularly from the guys in the audience).

The only other member of this rather small sect is Yalda (Nitya Vidyasagar). Although she was raised in Maryland, Yalda has turned against her country after her husband was killed during their wedding when an American drone mistook the celebration for a gathering of the Taliban.

Things start going wrong for the trio almost instantly, and after a replacement part for the explosive has been misdelivered to their slacker, weed-smoking upstairs neighbor Jerome (Steven Boyer), they find themselves scrambling to carry out their plan.

It's certainly a recipe for high comedy, but rather than being an ever-accelerating, laugh-filled rollercoaster ride, Kern's play bogs down in sentimentality and unnecessary tangents (even though one of Kern's earliest digressions, during which Rahim and Yalda fervently debate whether or not "A New Hope" should ever be attached or used with regard to the first Star Wars film, beautifully underscores the notion of how zealotry can lead to irrational acts.)

Further, as Kern attempts to create romantic friction between not only Rahim and Yalda, but also between Yalda and Jerome, and also inserts rather clichéd diatribes for Qala, the production sputters.

Indeed, the only real laughs come from some of the clever zingers that Kern ably writes and that the delightful Boyer delivers with perfection (even when Jerome is being terrorized and tortured by his neighbors as they attempt to rethink their plans).

Vidyasagar also delivers a deftly crafted performance as the conflicted Yalda, ably traversing the character's bitter archness and sad, vulnerable sweetness. Unfortunately, though, Harper and Ambudkar disappoint as they strain to land jokes and some of the show's physical gags, which become increasingly unfunny as the play darkens.