In the 1950s, scribes were writing plays about angry young men who expressed their social alienation by living like slobs and abusing their girlfriends — and nobody dared laugh. Today’s zeitgeist is represented by angry young men (and women) who vent their aggressions by building bombs and blowing up a lot of innocent people — and it’s OK to laugh. In fact, it’s more than OK with Jon Kern, the sardonic scribe of “Modern Terrorism,” an appallingly funny farce about young terrorists plotting to blow up everyone on the observation deck of the Empire State Building.
Qala, a Somali with a Western education, is the mastermind of this plot, and as played by the fiercely focused William Jackson Harper, his objective is to become a hero to the Islamic world.
Although the egomaniacal Qala supposedly studied with the best bombmakers in Yemen, things go absurdly wrong with his plans. The not-too-bright lad (Utkarsh Ambudkar) he recruited to be the suicide bomber crushes the first underwear bomb with his testicles. The replacement part is mistakenly delivered to the upstairs tenant (Steven Boyer).
Like any other protagonist of classic farce, Qala is driven wild by the setbacks to his grand scheme. What makes his comic dilemma so chilling is that his objective is to kill people. So you laugh at your own risk.
Yalda (Nitya Vidyasagar), the young Pakistani-American woman who shares Qala’s generic New York apartment and does a lot of the dirty work for him, has a stronger motive for turning terrorist. An American drone mistakenly dropped a bomb on her husband on their wedding day, and the controlled violence in Vidyasagar’s taut perf makes it clear that innocent Americans will have to die to satisfy Yalda’s thirst for vengeance.
And what, exactly, does Kern — and his uncannily perceptive and persuasive director, Peter DuBois — find funny about that? It’s the ironic contrast between Yalda’s vengeful motives and the utter banality of her disguise as a religious but thoroughly modernized American woman.
These sly cultural digs reach their comic apotheosis when the smart, fiercely driven Yalda bonds with Rahim, the incredibly sweet and incredibly dumb (in Ambudkar’s endearing perf) 20-year-old college kid who volunteered for this suicide mission. Their common devotion to “Star Wars” is silly and funny and touching.
But the engine of this farce is the instant friendship between Rahim and Jerome, the somewhat older American stoner who comes down from upstairs to turn over the misdelivered bomb part. In Boyer’s dazzling comic turn, Jerome is the goofy and good-natured all-American idiot who hasn’t a clue what’s going on in the world outside his own narrow interests of music, sports and good weed.
“It’s like you’re my brotha from another motha,” he says, when he realizes that he and Rahim share an enthusiasm for Michael Jordan.
Unluckily for these genuinely compatible brothas, Qala brings them both back to reality, suiting up Rahim with another crotch bomb and making a hostage of Jerome — disregarding that this slacker dude is so politically oblivious that he doesn’t even recognize the names of the Al Qaeda terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center.
But once Qala educates him, Jerome turns into something scarier than an aimless, ignorant American. He becomes an aimless, ignorant American on a dangerous and thrilling political mission.
Kern is saying something quite serious about the innocent enthusiasms of youthful idiots that a calculating leader can direct into something deadly. But he also wants you to laugh, and he wouldn’t at all mind if you choked on that laughter.