Just how far will the United States go to win its war on terrorism abroad and at home? How rough should this country get in its efforts to prevent future 9/11s? Those are two thorny questions at the heart of Back of the Throat by Egyptian-American playwright Yussef El Guindi. This brilliant black comedy, now playing at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham, NC, complicates the issue with a surprise ending — which we cannot and will not discuss here — that raises new and even more disturbing questions about the shocking events depicted.
Although he specializes in madcap comedies, such as The Mystery of Irma Vep and A Mouthfulla Sacco and Vanzetti, Manbites Dog guest director Jay O’Berski of the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern strikes just the right note of somber concern — underneath all the laughter — as the frequently funny, but increasingly violent interrogation of the Arab-American protagonist of Back of the Throat escalates to an eyebrow-raising conclusion. Moreover, O’Berski skillfully guides his highly talented cast through a difficult script, frequently punctuated with flashbacks revealing pivotal background information about the characters who occupy center stage.
Bart Matthews plays Khaled (which means “Eternal” in Arabic and is pronounced “Khah-leed,” resonating against the back of the throat) as an initially eager-to-help Middle Eastern immigrant appalled by the carnage on 9/11. Boldly declaring that he has nothing to hide, and that this heinous act is anathema to him, Khaled agrees to an informal interview in his apartment with Homeland Security agents Bartlett (David Berberian) and Carl (Jeffrey Scott Detwiler), who almost immediately start to snoop around his apartment and roughly paw through his possessions. Soon, their initially friendly questions about whether he knew the terrorist Asfoor (Ken Wolpert) take on an increasingly hard edge; and, eventually, Bartlett and Carl not only give Khaled the third degree with brio, but physically rough him up as well.
Three dubious witnesses to Khaled’s witting or unwitting contacts with Asfoor provide comic relief from the increasingly serious situation that unfolds as Carl and Bartlett take off the gloves. They include Shelly the nosy, nervous, tightly wound librarian; Khaled’s embittered and, perhaps, completely paranoid and vindictive former girlfriend Beth; and Jean the ditzy lapdancing exotic dancer — three highly distinctive and utterly delightful characterizations by Little Green Pig managing director Dana Marks. This testy trio of scornful — and very, very funny — women relentlessly assaults Khaled’s claims that he doesn’t remember meeting Asfoor, let alone commiserating with his terrorist agenda.
Bart Matthews gives a soulful performance as Khaled, a clean-cut, mild-mannered, British-accented would be writer suffering from writer’s block. Khaled is increasingly bewildered — and ultimately alarmed — by the Machiavellian methods employed by his government interrogators.
The bearded and scruffy Ken Wolpert gives a somewhat less charismatic characterization as Asfoor — perhaps because the playwright makes Asfoor a veritable phantom who drifts in and out of the story, with only one extended speech (and it’s a doozy). Otherwise, Asfoor appears — but cannot be heard by the audience — in a series of flashbacks of events that may or may not have taken place.
David Berberian and Jeffrey Scott Detwiler make a fine Mutt-and-Jeff team of hard-nosed investigators determined to browbeat or, if necessary, BEAT the truth out of Khaled. These seasoned actors contribute absolutely chilling portraits make the invariably cheerful but brutal pair even creepier. God help us all if the real Homeland Security types are anything like Bartlett and Carl.
Although some theater-goers will have major problems with the denouement of Back of the Throat, Yussef El Guindi’s play is — up until its final moments — a provocative black comedy on a timely topic. Director Jay O’Berski and his all-star cast do their best to explore all the dimensions of the all-too-human protagonist and the somewhat stereotypical characters that surround him. Set designers David Fellerah and John Galt also do a fine job of recreating Khaled’s cramped, cluttered apartment — plus extra playing areas on the wings where flashbacks can take place — and lighting designer Lionel Mouse artfully employs his instruments to heighten the dramatic intensity of this must-see message comedy.
Note: To ratchet up the tension of Back of the Throat, Manbites Dog has staged the show in a claustrophobic cocoon, with very limited seating. So, advance reservations are not only strongly recommended; they may be essential.
Manbites Dog Theater presents Back of the Throat Wednesday-Saturday, Nov. 9-12, at 8:15 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 13, at 3:15 p.m.; and Wednesday-Saturday, Nov. 16-19, at 8:15 p.m. at 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $10 Wednesday-Thursday and $15 Friday-Sunday. 919/682-3343 or via tix.com at the presenter's site. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/2/.