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InterAct’s ‘Jihad Jones’BY: Dan Rottenberg 04.16.2009
A serious Arab actor gets a shot at fame and fortune; all he must do is perpetuate the worst possible Muslim terrorist stereotype. Yussef El Guindi has a fine idea for a 15-minute comedy skit, but its humor soon wears thin, especially given the play’s flimsy underlying premise.
Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes. By Yussef El Guindi; directed by Seth Rozin. InterAct Theatre production through May 10, 2009 at The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St. (215) 568-8079 or www.interacttheatre.org.
An Arab actor with a problemDAN ROTTENBERG
Actors, we know, are crazed people— so devoted to their craft and so hungry for attention (and rent money) that they’ll do anything for a part. In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman disguised himself as a woman to land a role. In Robert Anderson’s Broadway comedy You Know I Can’t Hear You When The Water’s Running, Martin Balsam played an actor so desperate for work that he agreed to appear stark naked on stage (that was 1967, when even actors were still self-conscious).
But Yussef El Guindi’s comedy, Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes, concerns an actor with an entirely different problem. Ashraf is a serious but struggling thespian of Arab descent who’s been offered a starring role in a Hollywood blockbuster with a fee in the high six figures. But Ashraf balks because the job involves portraying a two-dimensional Muslim terrorist. Ashraf wants nothing to do with perpetuating demeaning Arab stereotypes; he’d rather play Hamlet.
This is a cute idea for a skit on “Saturday Night Live,” and for the first 15 minutes or so Jihad Jones is very funny indeed. Fajer Al-Kaisi as Ashraf carries the brunt of the humor as a gentle conscience-stricken soul who’s nevertheless capable of transforming himself into the snarling, sweating, sex-crazed homicidal Islamo-fascist of Dick Cheney’s fantasies. And El Guindi’s script demonstrates a sophisticated awareness of the ludicrous tradeoffs inherent in showbiz. (When Ashraf expresses a preference for theater over film, his exasperated agent screams, “The worst film last year was seen by more people than the best play produced in the last 500 years!”— which isn’t too far from the truth.)
Harry Belafonte balked, too
But the humor soon wears thin, and not merely because Jihad Jones involves heavy-handedly milking a single gag for 90 minutes. For one thing, the notion of an actor rejecting a role on principle isn’t all that outlandish: Harry Belafonte, for example, turned down the film version of Porgy and Bess because he felt it demeaned black people (Sidney Poitier played the role instead).
For another, this comedy about the absurdity of Americans’ Arab stereotypes necessarily requires stereotyping every other character: the unprincipled hustling agent, his mousey secretary, the pompous director and the voluptuous starlet. InterAct’s casting of these roles doesn’t help, either. Peter Schmitz as the director delivers an effective rendition of Peter O’Toole in The Stunt Man; but John Zak as the agent and Laura Catlaw as the starlet, for all their energetic slapstick overacting, never persuaded me that they were really sleazy or sexy, respectively. In the hands of a more compelling cast and direction, Jihad Jones might seem less sophomoric.
The real power of actors
Which brings me to the biggest problem with Jihad Jones: its underlying premise that an actor is a helpless slave to his script. Playwrights and screenwriters lie awake nights worrying about their lack of control over the directors and actors to whom they entrust their precious manuscripts. And sometimes good actors and directors can make gold out of dross. That’s what the magic of theater is all about.
Should a Jew play Shylock? Should an Irish actor perpetuate O’Neill’s dysfunctional Irish family in Long Day’s Journey Into Night? Should Belafonte have refused to play Porgy? (Actually, yes— not to strike a blow against stereotyping, but because he was the wrong actor for the part.) Ashraf, you big wimp, take the part, make the best of it, and get on with your life.
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