During a Nazi interrogation of suspected Jews in France, a stunning rumor begins to circulate: "They're going to look at your penis." The very thought of such a personal violation jolts an electrifying shock through Incident at Vichy, Arthur Miller's World War II drama that was first staged in 1964. Forty-five years later, not only has the offstage rumor become an onstage reality, but in Back of the Throat, by Arab American playwright Yussef El Guindi, currently on view at St. Louis Actors' Studio, reality is also allegory. Our protagonist's penis is more than merely an organ: It is a metaphor for all the privacy that Americans have lost in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11.
As the play begins, we meet Khaled, a struggling young Arab American writer living mostly on hope and ambition in a large unnamed city. Khaled doesn't even speak Arabic. "I'm nobody interesting enough to have you waste your time," he naively tells two government interrogators who arrive at his small cluttered apartment. You don't have to be Nostradamus to predict that the early civility will not hold. Soon we hear Khaled pleading, "I have rights, I do have rights." No, he doesn't. "You're a Muslim and an Arab," he's reminded, as if those two nouns are fronts for murderer and terrorist. Besides, Khaled has one of those guttural last names whose accurate pronunciation depends on a good spin from the back of the throat.
Much of the story — especially during the early going — plays out as an intriguing good-cop, bad-cop grilling — but one in which the good-bad roles keep changing, thus keeping Khaled off balance. Alan David gives a lovely and moving performance as Khaled. The impending excesses of an overzealous bureaucracy are measured in his oval eyes — initially warm, eventually not unlike cracked eggshells — until by evening's end his idealistic best intentions have been eroded and he is reduced to a Rodin-like study of degradation. Kevin Beyer and John Pierson are an effectively intimidating pair of fearsome interrogators. On surface, the blandly named Bartlett and Carl appear as matter-of-fact as their flag lapel pins. Their poisonous menace, even their own personal fears and prejudices, seeps in slowly. By the time Carl bellows, "You hate everything that this country stands for," into Khaled's terrorized face, you can envision the patriotic bumper stickers on his car.
Whenever these three characters are interrelating in this one-act 75-minute tirade, Back of the Throat, staged here by David Wassilak, holds. But playwright El Guindi is not willing to sustain this harassment. Halfway through the evening he adds a gabby terrorist (Joseph Garner) with whom Khaled may or may not have consorted. Then he adds three women — a well-intentioned librarian, an embittered ex-girlfriend and a saucy stripper well endowed with a vivid imagination — who are intended as character assassins but who actually serve to dilute the tension. Julie Layton plays all three roles.
If there's a more engaging way to spend time in a theater than watching Layton perform a lap dance, at the moment I can't think of what it might be. But while her appealing presence might get pulses racing, her character slows down the story. That story is contained in Alan David's traumatized disbelief.
"People don't do such things," the already cynical Judge Brack observes in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. And that was 1890 in Norway. In post-9/11 America, we are persuaded that they do. But some artists are standing up to chronicle these excesses. So it is that a film like Thomas McCarthy's The Visitor and a play like Back of the Throat are at the foundation of a new genre of works that seek to dramatize the realities of an America where such things are done — and perhaps done more often than most of us know.
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