Mind Games in “Back of the Throat”

by Rod Stafford Hagwood

 

Is he a terrorist? Are you?

That’s the text and subtext of playwright Yussef El Guindi’s “Back of the Throat,” being staged through Nov. 9 by Outre Theatre Company at Boca Raton’s Sol Theatre.

The taut, stomach-in-knots play is set in the paranoid days following the 9/11 attacks. Arab-American Khaled (Rayner Garranchan) is being casually questioned by two Homeland Security agents in his New York studio apartment. “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about,” he is reassured. Not told exactly why he is a person of interest, Khaled responds: “It’s like battling ghosts.”

Over the next 80 minutes with no intermission, the web widens, and the noose tightens. The feds — Bartlett (Jim Gibbons) and Carl (Tim Gore) — keep finding titles on Khaled’s bookshelves that raise their doubts from elevated yellow to severe red. Answers to seemingly innocuous questions are turned jujitsu style back on Khaled, who is desperately trapped by insinuation and innuendo.

“It’s not profiling,” Bartlett says, noting that all the 9/11 terrorists are of Arab descent. “It’s deduction.”

“You know what I resent?” Carl asks after things have escalated. “What you make us become.”

In flashbacks, we get glimpses of what happened before Khaled answered the door. Carl and Bartlett interview three women, all played by an on-her-game Faiza Cherie, as they home in on ties with known terrorist Asfoor, played by an equally terrific Freddy Valle. There, the script reveals its brilliance: The interrogators are not sadistic madmen. That would be too easy. We are shown how they arrive at such a terrible place.

Visually speaking, “Back of the Throat” works when it really shouldn’t. The play isn’t so much designed with sets and lights as it is plunked down in the middle of the very intimate Sol Theatre with a few pieces of furniture serving minimal purpose.

And yet, the acting is visceral down to the pores, oozing flop sweat and the smell of fear. Is Khaled the victim of a Salem-like witch hunt (if he floats, kill him. If he sinks, well, that’s our bad) or is he a left-wing, militant Maoist who is into bestiality?

“Back of the Throat” throbs with that question. The implications are so awful, and the play’s execution is so engrossing, applause seems almost irreverent.