How do you make a comedy about the absurdity of modern terrorism? For bold, outside-the-box American playwright Rajiv Joseph (“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”), you set the satire a century earlier, allowing the trio of buffoons responsible for the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie to stand in for the ignorant, easily pliable suicide bombers hatching such plots today — that way, no one can cry, “Too soon!”
Commissioned by Center Theater Group on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, Joseph’s slyly relevant new period dramedy “Archduke” ends where most accounts of World War I begin: with the death of the Austro-Hungarian heir. As any elementary school graduate can tell you, Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was the spark that set the whole world on fire. Some may even recall the name of the young radical, Gavrilo Princip, who pulled the trigger. But Joseph is fairly safe in assuming that we retain little else about Princip and his cohorts, their cause or the man who sent them on their mission.
Thus, he’s free to invent, imagining whatever backstory he pleases. Where others might have turned the lead-up into a thriller or history lesson — or even a cheeky musical, à la Sondheim’s “Assassins” — Joseph opts to make his point via laughter. Gavrilo becomes a naïve young tuberculosis patient (in reality, he died of the condition in jail four years later), one of three recruited by Serbian nationalist Dragutin Dimitrijevic (Patrick Page), aka “Apis” or “The Bear,” a rogue military officer who’s no stranger to assassinations. (His boastful backstory is surprising to begin with, but gains depth with each retelling).
The play opens on Gavrilo (Stephen Stocking) with blood already on his hands. He has gone to see Dr. Leko (Todd Weeks), who performs free examinations for poor young men. Consumption is on the rise, and Leko can’t seem to get Gavrilo’s attention to deliver the diagnosis. The boy is slender, shirtless, barely there to begin with, and his skittish mind is working a mile a minute to change the subject: He talks of the blood-spattered handkerchief, confesses that he’s never known a woman, and grasps at the anatomical skeleton in the corner of the office, causing its bones to collapse all over the floor in an expertly choreographed slapstick routine.
The audience finds itself laughing at this young man when they might otherwise be wincing at the death sentence that he’s just received — but that’s typical of Joseph, who uses laughter (and even seemingly meaningless chatter) in disarming and unexpected ways. Leko’s next patient is Apis, who strides into his office like a general declaring this new territory for himself. Apis submits to an examination, but has come for something else: to bully the doctor into sending him five sturdy “lungers,” terminal young tuberculosis patients to carry out his plot.
That will be revealed in time, though Joseph knows we’ll put two and two together long before the three young men on stage can. They’re hardly geniuses, much more like feeble-minded children, bumbling cluelessly in whichever direction they’re bullied. And Apis is nothing if not an effective bully, playing a puffed-chest officer like a distant cousin of Charlie Chaplin’s great dictator. For the first half of “Archduke,” Joseph seduces us with comedy, poking fun at how scrappy Apis’ plans are, the thinness of his argument (that the “suffocating grip of Austro-Hungary” is responsible for their illness) and the pathetic susceptibility of the fools he has assembled.
How different are today’s suicide bombers? Or young American soldiers, for that matter? They are sold ideals of patriotism and duty and glory, and they are told what to do by men older and more manipulative. These characters may just as easily be mental cases as terminal tuberculosis patients, so dopey are their responses. And there Joseph treads a fine line, in a way that didn’t seem to bother the Mark Taper audience but deeply offended this critic. Disagree as we might with certain causes, it seems risky to suggest that they don’t exist — that desperate kids can be manipulated for the price of a train ride and a sandwich. Surely the man who shot Franz Ferdinand stood for something.
The second half of the play turns more serious, but the jokes keep coming, which makes the overall tone increasingly uncomfortable. Apis’ assistant, a stooped-over old Serbian woman named Sladjana (Joanne McGee, unrecognizable with her heavy makeup), has previously only been good for her Igor-like laughs, but now gets a long, odd monologue in which she seems to be telling Gavrilo to think for himself — something he has done, if just barely, the moment before the lights fall for intermission.
But he has been brainwashed, and the rest of the play reveals just how thoroughly this slight, sick, inconsequential shell of a man has been convinced to perform an act that will alter the course of history. The final scenes take place on an elaborately recreated sleeper car, the most luxurious thing any one of these boys — Gavrilo, Nedeljko (Josiah Bania) or Trifko (Ramiz Monsef, who also appeared in Joseph’s “Guards at the Taj”) — has ever experienced. They are bound for Sarajevo, and their respective fates. Gavrilo observes how the world’s smaller than it used to be. At first, it seems like he’s merely killing time, but Joseph recasts the words in the context of their mission, and suddenly, idle talk assumes great poignancy.
“Archduke” doesn’t feel as earth-shattering or ambitious as “Bengal Tiger” or “Guards at the Taj,” but it bears certain key similarities. Once again, Joseph has turned the spotlight of world history upon the comical, inadvertently profound side characters, except that in this case, small men who would have otherwise been forgotten grabbed the spotlight for themselves. We lose sight of the greater tragedy, but we consider, in greatly simplified terms, how easily any man can derail the path of progress. It’s a frightening reminder, and one that doesn’t typically follow “Who’s on First?”-style comic shenanigans, but effective all the same.