In a city as inured to code-orange anxiety as New York, the title of “Terrorism” resonates with a disquieting chill. So there’s every reason to expect its mordant humor and grim insights to be especially provocative in the play’s U.S. premiere. Its six subtly interconnected scenes formulate the thesis that every act of intolerance, hatred and violence, be it personal or political, constitutes a link in an insidious chain of fear and devastation. But there’s a curious absence of gravitas in the unevenly acted New Group/Play Company staging, making the work by Siberian siblings the Presnyakov Brothers more ponderous than penetrating.
First seen in 2003 in a well-received production at London’s Royal Court, Sasha Dugdale’s fluid English translation does right by the playwrights’ taut structure and the sly wit with which the brothers dole out intriguing clues as to the common elements in each of their seemingly random scenarios.
But “Terrorism” suffers from a disconnect similar to this season’s “Democracy,” which bowed to general acclaim in London but seemed diluted and stripped of its urgency by an American cast oddly removed from the events and issues at stake.
Far less specific than Michael Frayn’s German parliamentary milieu, the Presnyakovs’ setting is a contemporary society infected by violence as much psychological as physical. But director Will Frears and his cast fumble equally in tapping the play’s stealthy horror, its bleak pessimism and its playful morbidity. Only Alex Draper and the always watchable Elizabeth Marvel, as two of the more central figures in the puzzle-like drama, begin to approach the vividness of the writing.
“The innocent always suffer. … Although one way or another, everyone’s guilty of something,” says a character early on. While the words are expressed in a tone both literal and glibly platitudinous, they pretty much sum up the playwrights’ view of collective responsibility for global terror. “Every day, each person is moving closer to the fate they deserve,” says the same character later on.
Frears establishes an uncomfortable pre-show mood by having the actors congregate on David Korins’ forbidding set of steel panels topped by razor wire. As the audience files in, the actors read, listen to music, snooze or simply kill time with the distinct look of people numbed by a long period of waiting.
The setting is an airport tarmac strewn with luggage, with military guards providing sketchy information to stranded passengers following suspension of all travel due to a bomb threat. A frustrated business traveler (Draper) supplies the chief thread between the six scenes.
Some swift manipulation of Korins’ utilitarian scenery transforms the stage into a bedroom, where a wife (Marvel) and her lover (R.E. Rodgers) engage in despondent sex games, which turn ugly when he takes her bondage suggestion to extremes.
From there to an office typing pool peopled by co-workers festering with mutual scorn; the scene assumes a farcical tone as one colleague is found dead, having hanged herself in the relaxation room. Next up are two bigoted old dears on a park bench (Lola Pashalinski, Laura Esterman), who share a willingness to resort to murder in dealing with the annoyances of their families.
In a locker room, bomb squad officers discuss the day’s incidents, the focal point of which is a gas explosion in the building where the lovers’ tryst took place.
In the ineffectual closing scene, the traveler finally catches his plane. His state of wired paranoia suggests everything may be part of one man’s nightmare, a plausible conclusion in the post-9/11 climate of high-security and even higher-anxiety air travel. (The play was written prior to the 2001 attacks.)
As much as Frears attempts to sharpen the drama’s edgy uneasiness with liberal nudity — most of scene two unfolds with both actors naked from the waist down, including Marvel tied to the bed — “Terrorism” feels somewhat toothless, its acrid humor only occasionally hitting the mark. The desperation, dread and cruel cynicism laced through the text are allowed to evaporate in a weightless staging that leaves only the dexterity of the interwoven structure to be admired.
While Marcus Doshi’s stark lighting places the characters in a suitably harsh, unforgiving glare echoed in sound designer Bart Fasbender’s static drone, the actors for the most part make a pallid, often amateurish impression; their suppressed rage has no heat. This is particularly so in the shrilly played office scene and the homicidal-grandma vignette.
The closest the production comes to hitting its target is Marvel’s delicious disdain for her lover’s lame poetry and prosaic ruminations, hinting briefly at the scalding indictment of a poisoned society that this play might have been in more capable hands.