“The Pit Inside Us.” That was the title of my Voice article on the theater festival held at Town Hall to commemorate the first anniversary of 9-11. Nearly four years on, we’re finding that the trauma we suffered that day has transmogrified into a bland, all-purpose metaphor for just about every social, political, and psychological ill known to mankind. Terrorism, it seems, is not primarily an extremist political tactic (which has changed the way we travel, look at strangers, scan the sky, hear sirens); it is also apparently the way we commit adultery, resent our sons-in-law, poison our husbands, and annoy our co-workers.
This, at any rate, is the portentous pronouncement on the real nature of terrorism by the Presnyakov Brothers, Russian co-authors of a play on the subject, enjoying its American premiere in a co-production by the New Group and the Play Company. Knowing that this work has had successful productions around the world, one wonders how to explain this dispiriting display of pretentious generalities. Could it be that the surreal horrors of ordinary Russian life that inspired the play make little sense when transferred to the world of privileged New Yorkers, where the action now seems to be set? Or that the kind of Grand Guignol sensibility suggested by the way the authors identify themselves as if they were a circus act calls for a performance style that would yield a much more entertainingly sick play than director Will Frears is able or willing to unleash on post-9-11 New Yorkers?
A man arrives at an airport to find it closed because the authorities are dealing with unattended bags on the runway. Other passengers waiting around lecture him on the Philosophical Meaning of this delay; they try to get him to Accept His Fate and hang with them. He, however, is boldly self-determining: He decides to go home while this inconvenient terrorism stuff is dealt with. The rest of the play connects the dots between various interlocking stories of adultery, suicide, murder, and death—sensational subject matter that somehow fails to lift the characters and their world a single inch out of profound banality (just as the rampant onstage nudity fails to enliven its leaden atmosphere).
The terrific cast manages to salvage several revelatory moments from Terrorism‘s wreckage of generalities and ugly sentiments. A sex scene early in the play, for example, is a chilling and quite courageous exploration by the actors of a doomed search for intimacy and excitement. Later, in a locker-room scene, the link between hideous violence and pleasure suddenly sneaks up on you, leaving you self-horrified, world-terrified.
The idea that each and every boring one of us is guilty of daily mini-acts of terror could create an explosively cynical piece of theater if a performance style were found that allowed the actors to really relish the sickness at the heart of these nasty characters. Played for emotional realism, the spectacle of so much deception and disappointment is both baffling and simply distasteful.