Back of the Throat by Yussef El Guindi is quite a ride–sometimes a roller coaster, sometimes merely bumpy. Written in 2005, it was widely produced by small theaters as the new American security state rose up after the 9/11 attacks. As Edward Morgan writes of his production at Next Act Theatre, which opened this weekend, El Guindi’s play is still relevant: “The increasing contact and conflict between the West and the Middle East is the dominant issue of our time.”
It’s set in a modest New York apartment not long after the Sept. 11 attacks. Back of the Throat begins with a certain comic menace. Two bland and besuited “government agents” (Jonathan Wainwright and Andrew Voss) visit Khaled (Christopher Tramantana) to ask a few questions. He’s practically enthusiastic about their visit, but his eagerness wanes as the visit becomes more invasive and somewhat absurd (the agents ask Khaled to fill out an “evaluation” of their visit, as if they were cable TV installers). Eventually, the cool realism of the play (pleasantly strained by El Guindi’s surreal touches) disappears completely as scenes from Khaled’s past materialize in the room as he’s being questioned about them.
That’s when things really get interesting, but the play keeps you off balance from start to finish—the tone is alternatingly sinister and absurd, the stage reality gritty and fantastic. Director Edward Morgan holds it all together with smooth stagecraft and carefully modulated performances. Tramantana has the snappy energy you’d expect from a struggling writer like Khaled, and perfectly captures the tense give-and-take between indignation and reluctant pandering. Wainwright and Voss are the perfect bad-cop-good-cop team, with Wainwright’s character babbling absurdities while his partner quietly pokes around in Khaled’s private nooks and crannies. Mohammad N. ElBsat plays a figure from Khaled’s past with appropriately quiet menace. And Alexandra Bonesho has great fun with a trio of vignettes, including a stripper who takes her job—and her allegiance to homeland security—quite seriously.
In the end, what started as a seeming civil rights polemic, then shifts to satiric invective about bumbling bureaucracy, becomes something much richer and more harrowing. For me, it hearkened back to a real figure of the post-9/11 world, Donald Rumsfeld and his notorious and much mocked sound bite about “known knowns and known unknowns.” It may seem like dubious praise, but El Guindi, Morgan and the Next Act production had me thinking that the then Secretary of Defense was onto something.