Blind Angels

by PJ Grisar · February 11, 2014

Indie Artists on New Plays #47 P.J. Grisar looks at Blind Angels playing at Theater for the New City

Your old friend’s plushy, SoHo apartment is not a typical incubator for terrorist activity and Dick Brukenfeld’s new thriller Blind Angels doesn’t let us forget that, framing the exception, and giving a taboo topic a different tack than we’re used to. Enter Aaron, a political writer (very loosely based on real-life journalist and hostage, Daniel Pearl). He is beckoned to the home of his ex-fiancé, Danny, at the request of her cousin, Sadri an ex-roommate from Yale and Middle East expert, under the pretense of cranking out a quick piece on nuclear acquisition for his paper. Resentment’s in the air as Danny and Aaron left off on a sour note—she blames him for a drone strike that took her mother’s life and now they are expected to share a couch for the all-nighter. If that weren’t enough, there’s a rakish wedding videographer-turned in house hired muscle named Yusef who’s requisitioned Aaron’s laptop and, burying the considerable lead, there’s the matter of the two nuclear bombs whiling away their half-life in the master bedroom and Aaron’s been tasked with broadcasting the big bang announcement.

Snubbed by a bigoted senator for telling it like it is on a stint as a consultant, Sadri has contrived the mother of all teachable moments to the West. His plan is to set the twin bombs off by ground zero and prove to the powers that be that walk-in nukes are a real possibility and, with that demonstration, give the American boots on Arab soil their walking orders. One wonders at Sadri, who is so carefully rendered as an embedded and self-identifying American (and a mathematically and logically-inclined one—a professor of mathematics) thinks such a display would win his people any friends even if Aaron’s able to use his post as journalist to warn the residents and ensure the minimum collateral damage. Sadri’s plan is so Byzantine a good quarter of the play’s runtime is explaining it with another quarter given over to Scott Raker’s flustered Aaron sticking a finger into the plot’s plot holes with nervous energy and the hokey jokes of a Borscht Belt comic—a lot is made out of the fact that he’s a rabbi’s son.

Echoing his energy, the rest of the ensemble acts to the back of the house; sound and movement standing in for an urgency and tension the script struggles to deliver even with a literal ticking clock and Sadri’s sponsors out for blood.

Melissa Attebery’s direction, aided by the shearing, digitized audio of sound designer Anthony Mattana and lighting designer Alex Bartenieff’s jarring crossfades owe a bit to shows like Homeland and it got me thinking about the distinction between rendering tension on stage versus film where these smash cut-type shifts play very differently. In onscreen thrillers, the anxiety ekes out when things get quiet. A focus tightens on a contained expression only the lens of a camera can see and a creeping sense of being trapped swells with the soundtrack. To keep the momentum of a thriller on a live stage Attebery (who has a television background) elects to keep it loud, big and kinetic and Brukenfeld allows the convention of direct-address monologues to peer into his characters’ psyche—a kind of theatrical close up. In performance we’ve widened the frame, but, as with a camera, open the aperture too wide and the light oversaturates. The image blurs and we lose focus on the subject.

The play poses maybe too many and too muddled (but nonetheless engaging) questions about nationalism, friendship and familial duty and the nature of sacrifice. But, the specifics of the misguided martyr’s stratagem are so ponderous and cartoonish that they sometimes register as parody. One plot point involving Alok Tewari’s affable Yussef seemed straight out of a six door farce—to be clear, Brandon McNeel’s high-ceilinged, urbanely dressed set has only two slamming practicals that do slam with some frequency, often with the tangle of Giovanni Villari’s fight choreo. Many moments made me wonder what would happen if Brukenfeld’s already joke-inclined script had followed its impulse and been made into a more tonally consistent comedy, albeit a pitch black one.





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