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The American premiere of the Presnyakov Brothers' disturbing if occasionally tedious play has a "ripped-from-the-headlines" feel.

Alex Draper, Adam Alexi-Malle, R.E. Rodgers
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Franklin D. Roosevelt told us we have nothing to fear but fear itself. The Presnyakov Brothers have a different credo -- one that is the ultimate message of Terrorism, the Siberian-born siblings' disturbing if occasionally tedious 75-minute play, which is being given its American premiere by The New Group and The Play Company.

Terrorism was written in 2000 (and had its European premiere at the Moscow Arts Theater in 2002). Yet this is very much a work for the post 9/11 age, and its opening scene has as much of a "ripped-from-the-headlines" feel as an episode of Law & Order. As we enter the theater, eight members of the nine-person cast -- two of whom are dressed in military uniforms -- are already on stage in what appears to be an airport cluttered with suitcases. (The clever, multi-functional set is by the always inventive David Korins.) We soon learn that the airport in question has been closed by a bomb threat, an action that will eventually lead to a gruesome murder.

Taking a page from La Ronde, The Presnyakov Brothers structure their work as a series of interconnected scenes in various locales, each of which opens a window to the various, insidious forms of "terrorism" that invade daily life. (I confess to being unsure of the precise link between scenes two and three.) An adulterous wife discovers that her seemingly sensitive lover has a greater capacity for violence than she ever imagined; an unseen office worker is so demoralized by her job and her short-tempered boss that she commits suicide at the workplace, while one of her colleagues reveals that she has lied about her marital status in order to ingratiate herself with her co-workers; an elderly lady tells her best friend that she has knocked off her husband with slow-acting poison; and so on. Our inner terrorists are revealed one by one, and they prove to be much more frightening than global terrorists. (The bomb threat at the airport turns out to be a false alarm.)

The play is clearly in the European tradition of words speaking louder than actions, and director Will Frears -- who has been down the 9/11 road before with Omnium Gatherum -- hasn't always succeeded in making the Presnyakovs' more intensely philosophical speeches seem like anything more than pseudo-intellectual mumbo-jumbo. It also doesn't help that some of the Presnyakovs' stronger points are intermingled with the weak ones; Frears needs to give the audience more help in processing these ideas.

If nothing else, the hard-working cast is to be praised for remembering so many lines. Off-Broadway stalwarts Adam Alexi-Malle, Alex Draper, Anna George, Darren Goldstein, and Daniel Oreskes are among those who play approximately two dozen nameless characters, and they bring their customary skill to all of their roles. Laura Esterman, who was brilliant in the Keen Company's recent revival of Outward Bound, once again scores as the seemingly sweet granny who's too easily swayed by her racist pal (an amusing turn by downtown legend Lola Pashalinski) into plotting the death of her "ethnic" son-in-law.

Foremost among the players, however, are Elizabeth Marvel and R.E. Rodgers. In their scene as the adulterous lovers, they bring both an emotional intensity and physical fearlessness to the misbegotten encounter. (For much of the scene, Marvel is tied up on the bed and bottomless, while Rodgers is fully nude. While I don't expect that many parents are planning to bring their children to a show titled Terrorism, it should be noted that there is more full-frontal nudity throughout this show than in any production of Hair.) Marvel also etches another strong portrait as a woman who's derided by her boss and her co-workers for the craftwork that she displays on her desk; when her reason for doing so is revealed, it seems both cruel and hilarious.

The next time you meet a stranger on a plane, a train, or a bus after seeing Terrorism, you might wonder what's in his heart rather than what's in his his suitcase -- and while you're at it, you might want to look inside your own! As Roosevelt did not say, we have nothing to fear but ourselves.


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