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 October 19 , 2012


The bromide that "comedy is tragedy plus time" is certainly true of Modern Terrorism. Jon Kern's constantly funny play deals with people who want to blow up the Empire State Building. Had it been written 11 years ago, it certainly wouldn't have been a late entry in the 2001-2002 season.

The play has an annoyingly lengthy 14-word subtitle, but the show is so good that Kern deserves to have it spelled out: Or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them.

"Love" is a little strong, but, my, are we amused by three terrorists: Rahim, who's having his underwear outfitted with a bomb prior to a suicide mission; Qala, the bomb maker who says that "we are in an end-justifies-the-means business" and Yalda, a native of Wheaton, Maryland who has nevertheless come to ally herself with Muslim causes and wears a hijab at all times.

(In the last-named role, Nitya Vidysagar is funny enough to be called a Middle Eastern Andrea Martin. The play has her smile so much – not often in sincere fashion – that Vidysagar proves that she has enough smiles for summer, fall, winter and spring nights.)

Of the terrorists, Yalda is the most ferocious – and the one who keeps the subtitle from being Dumb & Dumber & Dumbest. After all, the guys leave the door unlocked (hard to believe of terrorists, no?) which blithely allows upstairs neighbor Jerome to just walk in. However, theatergoers will be glad he did, for he's played by Steven Boyer, who was so brilliant last season as an unbalanced young man whose alter ego was a puppet in Hand to God.

Here Boyer is hilarious as a stoner who inadvertently gets himself involved with terrorism, mostly because he has nothing better to do. On Sunday, the audience was so amused by him that in the second act he got a laugh just from the way he picked up a carton of orange juice and shook it.

Would-be friendship and the potential of love threaten to thwart the terrorists' plan. So does the paranoia that automatically must come from being in this line of work. And yet, as much as these three hate America, they're not above eating Rice Krispies, singing the theme from Star Wars and using an iPod. In fact, Rahim defines heaven as "playing Xbox all night."

Who'd expect that a play about terrorism would be the funniest of the recent openings? In second place is one that tackles religion: A.R. Gurney's Heresy at the Flea. It occurs in the here-and-now, but in an alternate universe in Joseph and Mary's Son is being judged by Pontius Pilate.

In this world, Pontius has a wife named Phyllis. Her name must represent the first two syllables of the word that ends with "istine," for this is one ignorant woman. However, the wife of a powerful man assumes that if she's landed a big man as a husband, she must be something special. And Phyllis, as brilliantly portrayed by Kathy Najimy, conveys all the self-assurance and quiet arrogance as she gets progressively more inebriated.

The tipsiness is calibrated at slow and steady intervals. How I wish that Heresy had been produced three years ago and that Katie Finneran and Rob Ashford could have attended; then they could have seen how a lush can be subtly conveyed, instead having a rip-roaring over-the-top characterization that they devised for Marge in Promises, Promises. I wish the Tony voters that year could have attended, too.

Gurney suggests that if Jesus were alive today, He might not have made the same demands that he made way-back-when. After all, times change, which makes for different needs. So Gurney wouldn't be surprised if today's Christ would have been in favor of non-celibate priests, birth control and leniency on abortion.

So this isn't the ideal entertainment for staunch Christians. Grace isn't either, although Craig Wright's excellent play certainly raises important questions – precisely why many won't like it. Steve is born-again, and, true to form for most converts, is now more devout than lifelong believers. His born-again wife Sara isn't quite as devoted, but she'll give religion the due that he wants her to give.

Karl, an exterminator, doesn't. Sam, a neighbor, doesn't, either. And, oh, does that infuriate Steve. "You're mad at God!" he bombastically rails at Sam – who could be said to have a right to be, given that his fiancée died in a car accident that took off half his face, too. But Sam isn't mad with God; Steve is mad with Sam, and will turn genuinely mad and thoroughly unchristian before long. Until then, Paul Rudd's Steve has that happy-go-lucky goofy naivete of those who've taken on an extra dose of faith.

In the '70s, Abigail Van Buren – better known as Dear Abby – was asked whom she most admired. She could have said Mother Teresa, Betty Ford, Billy Graham or the Pope. Instead she said "The mother of a developmentally disabled child."

She'd certainly admire the mother that playwright Deanna Jent has created in Falling at the Minetta Lane. Abby would equally respect Julia Murney's phenomenal performance as the indefatigable Tami. She speaks slowly and pleasantly to her developmentally disabled son Josh (the effective Daniel Everidge) in that sing-songy, unthreatening way that one uses to communicate with a baby.

For while Josh has now grown to six feet and 300 pounds, he still has a two-year-old's mindset. His biggest joy is going to a box of feathers that's been positioned on a shelf high above his head; he pulls it down and giggles every time the feathers engulf him.

Abigail Van Buren would also admire both Bill, Josh's father, as well as Daniel Pearce, who adeptly portrays him. Of the two parents, Bill is the far more likely of the two to put Josh in some sort of facility. Tami won't.

But Lisa, Josh's little sister, would have this kid walk the plank in no time flat. She long ago lost patience with her brother's tyrannical hold over this household. Lisa wants a dog, but the sound of barking scares Josh. Hence, no dog for Lisa. Whatever Joshie wants, Joshie gets – and at the moment he wants it because he's as self-absorbed as Judy Garland was in End of the Rainbow. Murney and Jent both convey how exhausting this life is day-in and day-out. At one moment, we see that Tami had rock star fantasies, but marriage, children – and Josh – eliminated that possibility.

Time for a visit from Grandma, who's a great believer in God. At mealtime, when she says grace, she includes the line "We thank you for every blessing in the room today." We, along with the family, look at Josh causing chaos in the other part of the room.

While Grandma likes to quote the Bible, she might cite a line from a very different religious-based property: Jesus Christ Superstar's "He is dangerous." Josh indeed is, for he thinks nothing of grabbing his mother by the hair – and that's just the start of it.

"We're used to it," Bill tells mother, while rebuffing her religious views. Jent, however, is fair to her too and gives her an excellent line about the optimum time to pray. The most potent line, however, goes to Tami. Deep in the play, Murney got an immediate and boisterous laugh from the attendees before the full import of what she'd said had really registered. Then the attendees gave a loud intake of breath that said "We're ashamed of ourselves for laughing." Any playwright who could do that is well worth following.

But the most potent experience of recent weeks turned out to be 1931-.

Playwrights Claire and Paul Sifton had it produced on Broadway in 1931 during the depths of the Depression, before Franklin Delano Roosevelt started turning matters around. Thus, we can infer the meaning of the dash that is followed by nothing more: who knew in what year the Depression would end?

It's especially rough for Adam, who does manual labor. His boss isn't paying attention and causes a minor accident, but won't apologize. Because he's the boss, he feels that he can simply blame his lowly employee. Adam's pride makes him quit.

Remember what Sipos taught us in She Loves Me? "Do not lose your job!" Adam certainly finds out how true that is. Through the intermissionless 100-minute play, the poor soul – brilliantly played by Stephen Dexter under Allie Mulholland's perfect direction -- struggles to find work. All that he finds is a steadily downward spiral. 1931- certainly proves that tragedy plus time doesn't always result in comedy.

         — Peter Filichia


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