Oh, God, finally — a play about Arab identity that isn’t a naked grab for grant money. Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s inventive tragicomedy “Invasion!,” in a flawless translation by Rachel Willson-Broyles, hits all the right notes on the way to its moving conclusion, managing to infuriate, then amuse, then enthrall without ever seeming disjointed or unsure. Solid work from the four-person cast and wise direction from helmer Erica Schmidt seal the deal. It’s tempting to just stop the review right here, since “Invasion!” holds so many surprises, but it’s more fun to tell you a little about it.
The play takes place all over; it starts off with a man (Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte) and a woman (Francis Benhamou) performing a purposefully stilted scene from Swedish historical epic “Signora Luna,” where we catch a single, portentous name: Abulkasem. From there, we switch settings to a high school, where we learn of another Abulkasem — a gay Beirut native who comes to visit his brother in America (where he calls himself “Lance”) and doesn’t always get a warm welcome.
The students (who have seen “Signora Luna” and don’t like it) make “abulkasem” a noun, a verb, an insult, a compliment — “It became the perfect word,” says Arvind (Nick Choksi). “But of course sometimes there were misunderstandings.” We return to these kids at the very end of the show, and Bobby Moreno, a standout here, delivers a deeply moving monologue that ties the whole thing together — insinuating, maybe, that if we want to understand another culture, we shouldn’t ignore its future players.
It’s the name “Abulkasem” itself that sits at the center of Khemiri’s play — its four syllables can describe wildly different people, just as they can stand in for all the fears Americans have about a widely demonized group. In several interstitial sequences, “experts” on Abulkasem discuss his exploits without ever really saying who he is … because they don’t know or care.
If there’s a section of this play that goes a little underserved, it’s “The Demon Director,” in which a grad student (Benhamou) gets hassled by her pretentious colleagues. The scene is very funny, and it also serves as the only major indictment of people who are likely to see the show. For that alone, it’s valuable.
In the play’s most scabrous scene, we meet a nameless Arab apple picker whose command of English doesn’t quite cut it, and he asks for a translator (Benhamou) who tells us what he’s saying … or not. A monologue about how much he loves Abba (Khemiri is Swedish) is translated more and more obviously as the rantings of a terrorist lunatic, until “Waterloo! I was defeated/ you won the war …” becomes “Before I strapped on the dynamite belt …”
It’s more than a metaphor — something less extreme, but similar happened on a Palestinian kids’ show in 2007 — but it’s a perfect microcosm of the problems of American paranoia and the ease with which that paranoia can be taken advantage of.
Somewhere in “Invasion!”, and it’s best not to say where, is at least one howlingly funny coup de theatre that will either make you laugh hysterically or terminally piss you off (this would be a good time to offer, er, props to set designer Antje Ellerman, too). Here’s hoping it’s the former — not every play forces you to examine your own reactions, and it’s a better theater for those that do.