April 26, 2006
By Catey Sullivan
Initially, you think you're in a comedy-an oddly, tension-fraught comedy to be sure, in which shadow of uncoiling vipers seem to be slithering just behind the text. Then the shadows vanish, and Yussef El Guindi's Back of the Throat becomes audaciously, mordantly humorous again.
Homeland security investigators Bartlett and Carl are bumbling idiots. Khalid, the man they're questioning, is happy to cooperate with them just as an intelligent adult sometimes indulges the whims of a slow child. But somewhere between Khalid's patient explanations ( "That's the Koran," he says when Bartlett off-handedly picks up a book and asks, "What's this one about?" ) and the exotic dance segment, Back of the Throat turns harrowing.
It's harrowing to the point where it's difficult to watch, and not because the performances are anything less than excellent or because Stuart Carden's direction never misses a step.
"Torture" is just an arrangement of letters-a concept at worst-until you have a visual to accompany it.
The piece is set entirely Khalid's (Kareem Bandealy), disheveled studio apartment. He's a writer, and the place is a magpie's nest of books, papers, porn magazines and computer paraphernalia. (Credit set designer Lee Keenan for capturing both claustrophobia and the creativity of the place.) As for Bandealy, he delivers a performance that is utterly believable as he moves through an exhausting emotional spectrum. In the penultimate scene, his eyes are so dead, so utterly vacant and flat, that it's almost surprising when he speaks again.
Just as powerful are Sean Sinitski as Bartlett and Tom Hickey as Carl. In a brief scene when the two quietly discuss how to best correct the "imbalance of power in the room," the subtext suddenly seems to echo with a million strangled screams.
Guindi is canny in his structure here: At the exact moment Back of the Throat becomes unbearable, he brings in a pole dancer with a penchant for pink pistol and teeny-weeny cowgirl outfits. She fits right into the story, and the scene is one of ebullient triumph for Elaine Robinson. She's a curvaceous marvel in fringe and cowboy boots who lights up the stage and brings down the house with her honky-tonky charms.
Guindi's play is not without flaws. He ends with a problematic coda, that while beautifully written and rich with meaning, isn't fully connected to the whole of the play, and thus dilutes from all that precedes it.
Even so, with a cast capable of moving in a blink from hilarious absurdity to horrifying intensity and a story that is tragically timely, Back of the Throat deserves a place on the must-see lists.