JIHAD JONES DELIGHTS AUDIENCES AT INTERACT THEATREby Bonnie Squires
Every once in a while a theater production offers the audience a message, pure joy, professionalism, and a memorable night out, all wrapped up together in a fabulous package. Such is the gift which the InterAct Theatre production of "Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes" bestows upon anyone who shows up at the Adrienne Theater to see this marvelous farce. Which is more than farce, more than satire, more than comedy.
The award-winning Arab-American playwright Yussef El Guindi has created a play which is a unique confection.
I cannot recall ever laughing so hard in the theater, not even at "The Producers," the original with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. Not even the revival with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Of course, I had a vested interest in the story of a handsome young Arab-American actor, with my own version, my husband, sitting right next to me.
But then - I was the only person who really appreciated "Ishtar" - you remember - the Warren Beattie-Dustin Hoffman film, a satire on Arabs, on the perception of beauty. Hoffman was the ladies man in this film, while Beattie was always trying to find out how to attract the females!. But I think you will all agree with me that "Jihad Jones" is really worth the trip into town. Fajer Al-Kaisi, an Iraqi-born Canadian, American-educated, now living and working in New York, is temporarily a resident of Philadelphia. He is starring in the InterAct Theatre Company's newest production, "Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes."
Al-Kaisi has the kind of dark, intense good looks that make people like my mother very nervous if they are waiting in a parking lot and someone who resembles Al-Kaisi is standing anywhere near them.
The fact that he is, in real life, married to an American Jew, a set designer named Leeanne Levinson, the fact that he did graduate work at the University of Texas in theater arts, the fact that he is soft-spoken when he is not emoting as the tortured Arab-American character on stage, probably would not convince people who have been paranoid about swarthy foreigners, even ones who speak English without an accent, that this foreigner means no harm. To anyone.
But then again, the award-winning playwright, an Arab-American himself, Yussef El Guindi, must know what it is like to go grocery shopping and have customers look at him suspiciously, perhaps move to the next line in order to avoid being anywhere near him. Which is probably why he was able to work the American paranoia and 9/11 fearfulness into such a heady, crazy, delightfully witty, screamingly funny plot. A plot with a subliminal message or two.
Because one of the best ways of dealing with human foibles is to make fun of them, correct? Charles Dickens excelled at this, naming his characters with onomatopoeic words which reveal the character's character.
Seth Rozin certainly picked a winner when he dared to stage "Jihad Jones." It must have been music to his ears, the raucous laughter of the opening night crowd, made up mainly of theater critics. A very tough crowd indeed.
But in addition to laughing at the witty lines and slapstick comedy, we were laughing guiltily at our own misconceptions, prejudices and stereotypes. El Guindi paints them in dayglo hues. And the very talented cast, which works together like a well-oiled engine, feeds each other lines and energy, playing for laughs, but making meaning as well.
It's hard to take your eyes off Fajer's Ashraf character, with the black-as-night ponytail, black-as-night eyes and eyebrows, ferocious mustache, yet total reluctance to play the stereotypical Arab villain which his agent Barry, played by John Zak, is desperate to have him play. You feel his pain. And you also empathize with his agent, who has been taking 10% of Fajer's current salary, a total $200 per week for playing Hamlet.
Before discussing the script for the movie, Barry locks the door to his office and hides the key in a series of lock-boxes which is another hilarious scene in the play. But that script represents the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: $800,000 salary for the young ethical actor. A whopping commission for Barry. Forget about the caricature of Arabs! Forget about the two-dimensional characters of the plot of this Hollywood play which would require Fajer to sell his soul for close to a million dollars, and the chance to work with the hottest director in Hollywood, as well as the most luscious young actress of his generation.
How much would it take to sell out everything he believes in? How many of us could resist such temptation?
There is no intermission in this hilarious production, which runs close to an hour and a half. But it moves so swiftly, and the laughs keep coming, while all the time making us slightly uncomfortable when the stereotypes hit us in the gut, that the audience was totally surprised when the play ended. It seemed to have gone by in a flash.
But re-telling the story and recalling the wonderfully funny scenes kept us laughing all the way home. And I still smile each time I re-create Fajer's exaggerated Arab accent, his wildly waving a fake pistol (which turns out to have one bullet in it), the electricity he and Laura Catlaw, as Cassandra, create as they act out a scene for the director, Peter Schmitz. And just for good measure, El Guindi throws in the agent's secretary who is suddenly smitten not by Fajer, but by Laura!
You have until May 10th to treat yourself to this delicious production of InterAct Theatre. Leave your conscience at the door.