Modern Terrorism Wants to Kill You with Laughs


Yes, I suppose, looked at the right way, everything’s funny, even terrorism. But your view of it will depend on the context in which you see it. Those who may be vulnerable to the next terrorist attack—and nowadays that includes practically everybody—might be forgiven for not getting the joke.

That poses a problem for Jon Kern, author of Modern Terrorism (Second Stage). He can’t depict wholly convincing terrorists and still make his audience feel safe enough to laugh. Intermittently, his comedy makes a daring try at that tricky double act, but his overall solution, far too facile, is simply to slice the Gordian knot. He makes his terrorists duffers—or, let’s say, intensely committed near-duffers: The gang that couldn’t bomb straight.

That concept, as recent news stories have shown, does have its meager reality. Apparently there are many wannabe bombers out there who wouldn’t know a real bomb from a mock-up, or an undercover cop from a dedicated destroyer. But such would-bes make viable targets for comedy precisely because they play so little part in the actual dangers we fear. Kern imagines a disparate, ill-trained trio, each with a distinct, disorderly agenda, and each differently compromised in his or her terrorist purity by his or her immersion in the corruptions of Western consumerism.

This merits a few mild chuckles—yes, people who mislay a borrowed iPod on their way to blow themselves up in a tourist crowd are funny, when they come back embarrassingly unexploded—but an actual suicide-bomb exploding would kill the joke, plus all interest in the mislaid iPod, right along with the suicider and the innocent civilians around him.

So when Kern, for his finale, hastily imagines an actual bomb and actual deaths (including the messy onstage one of a screwed-up civilian), he leaves his comedy, unachieved, stuck in the bloody wreckage—without, ultimately, having enabled us to understand, either better or more comically, what terrorists with more skill or deeper dedication are like, much less how we might learn to love them. He has provided, at points, some sharply funny lines, of which Peter Dubois’s smooth production takes jovial advantage. The four-person cast works well, Steven Boyer’s cheerfully oafish comic style contrasting, charmingly, with the taut concentration of Nitya Vidyasagar and the fierceness of William Jackson Harper. Best of all is Utkarsh Ambudkar, endearingly hapless and brave as the confused kid, chosen to wear the bomb, who’d really rather be home rewatching Star Wars.