Back of the Throat Offers Taste of Civil Rights Debate / by R. Sheth

April 10, 2006
By Nina Metz

American civil liberties have acquired a few bite marks since 9/11, and playwrights have squared off on this theme with varying degrees of success. Back of the Throat, by Seattle-based Yussef El Guindi, manages to finesse the conversation with far more nuance, wit and style than, say, Sam Shepard's tantrumlike God of Hell. What El Guindi achieves is something closer to Kafka's The Trial or Dostoevski's Crime and Punishment. The play also happens to be getting a stellar production by the Silk Road Theatre Project.

It is the company's inaugural show in its revamped space at the Chicago Temple, which is now the classiest church basement theater in town. Stuart Carden's crisp direction lives up to the expectations of the troupe's new venue.

Suspected of possible links to terrorism, Khalid (Kareem Bandealy) finds himself on the business end of an increasingly nasty inquisition. Even his name raises a flag, with its phlegmy "back of the throat" pronunciation.

The interrogators - Tom Hickey and Sean Sinitski, playing a game of catch with their good cop-bad cop personas - soon dispense with their phony smiles and put the screws to their man. Khalid makes a lot of claims that could be plausible. Or not. This ambiguity is the play's strongest asset. It is impossible to get a bead on the guy, but that is precisely the point; Khalid is a mystery to himself, as well as to others.

As the tension squeezes as tightly as a blood-pressure cuff (it dissipates, oddly, when the violence kicks in), El Guindi weaves in entire swaths of dark, absurdist humor. The feds hand over evaluation forms and ask Khalid, in all seriousness, to assess their performance. Flashbacks spill out of the closet, like so many secrets, including Elaine Robinson's thoroughly amusing, cowboy-hatted stripper. The G-man as bogeyman characterization feels like a subtle joke too. You half expect Khalid to channel "Glengarry Glen Ross" and start sputtering about their Gestapo tactics.

El Guindi's scenario might lack veracity - it's hard to believe an interview of this sort would take place in someone's apartment - but the paranoia, fueled by legitimate concerns, is as "now" as it gets.