By MARK BLANKENSHIP
You never know what will happen during preview performances: You could start with a goofy comedy and end with a dark rumination on fanaticism.
Something like that happened to playwright Jon Kern, whose new show Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them officially opens Thursday night at Second Stage. It began previews weeks ago, and as the creative team watched those early performances, they made changes that fundamentally altered the production.
"About a week or so in, we hit a point where the play's whole tone had shifted," Kern says. "It had felt light and bubby and cute and wacky, and some of the cuts made the play somewhat darker and a little scarier, although no less funny. We were still getting laughs on the blackly comic lines, but it shifted what I thought the audience was experiencing."
As the title suggests, the play has a provocative blend of humor and violence. It's set in a New York City apartment where a trio of terrorists---all Muslim---are planning to blow up the Empire State Building. They only problem: They aren't very good at their jobs. Qala, the leader, is so eager to announce his victories online that he can't follow through with the details. Meanwhile, Rahim and Yalda, his accomplices, are torn by their hatred and love for America and their confused attraction to each other. And when their neighbor, a schlubby dude named Jerome, accidentally gets involved with their schemes, chaos ensues.
Kern was initially inspired by the inept terrorist who tried to attack Times Square in 2010. "He actually left his keys in the van he was trying to have blow up," he says. "When he dropped his keys in the van, he also left they keys for his getaway van, and he also left his house keys. You can just imagine this phone conversation with his landlord. [And] I thought, 'If I can just find all the awkwardness in this endeavor it could be funny.'"
To be sure, there's still plenty of comedy in the show, including a slapstick moment where a character gets sprayed in the face with a hose. However, as the production has been adjusted to clarify emotional stakes, darker elements have emerged.
In one scene, for instance, two characters were talking across a kitchen island, but the moment felt stilted. "The [kitchen island] was cutting off their energy," Kern says. Now, the conversation begins after a character enters with a prayer mat, which puts the characters very close together and creates a moment of religious intimacy. "It was a very simple thing to do, but it pushed it in a direction where what came out of that scene had a darker energy of characters really preparing to go out and commit murder," Kern recalls.
"Things like that have made the play more concretely dark, and the dangers of the play seem a little more tactile" he adds. "Because of that, other moments weren't going to work anymore. One of the actors actually had to modify his performance a little so that his style would fit with the way the new tone worked. He just knew at intermission that what he was doing wasn't working the way it had been working. Some of the elements he had built to get laughs were a little larger than what the play had now become."
With these changes in place, the final version of Modern Terrorism is perhaps more unsettling, asking us to consider the characters as both dangerous agents and charming clowns. And in this version, the comedy may be even more important than it was before. "The humor has felt like the only way for the audience to soften and really connect with the characters and be engaged and feel for them," says Kern. "Even the scarier characters, because they're funny at times, can earn the empathy---maybe not everybody in the audience---but can earn the empathy of the audience. We're able to look at what their actions are in a new and more human light."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus