Monday, February 10, 2014

Blind Angels at Theater for the New City

L-R: Francesco Campari, Alok Tewari, and Scott Raker in BLIND ANGELS.  Photo by Ina Stinus.
It may be fashionable today to pride oneself on being non-judgmental, on being able to see things from the other guy’s point of view, on realizing that there are two sides to every question, and on recognizing that nothing ever is completely black or white.  Yes, it may be fashionable to proclaim such moral relativism but I’m sorry, I just don’t agree.

There are not two sides to every issue.  The Nazis were evil and the Holocaust was absolutely wrong; there were no mitigating circumstances and anyone who chooses to explore whatever political, economic, social or psychological factors may have motivated the Nazis in order to better “understand” them is himself morally bankrupt.  On a smaller scale, sexual child predators are monsters and while one may sympathize with them for whatever abuse they may have suffered themselves as children, that in no way explains, let alone justifies, their adult behavior.  Similarly, one may disapprove of specific Israeli actions and the effect that such actions may have on Palestinians (the expansion of settlements, for example, comes to mind) but in no way can such Israeli actions be used to rationalize the launching of rockets from Palestinian-held territory into Israel or any attempt to totally destroy the State of Israel.  No, there is no “moral equivalency” in such cases and any attempt to argue otherwise is itself morally reprehensible.

This is especially true of terrorism.  US drone strikes, launched to destroy individual terrorists and terrorist cells, may result in such terrible collateral damage that they should be suspended, but that does not mean that there is any sort of moral equivalency between such strikes and terrorist acts.  Terrorist attacks on innocent civilians – e.g. the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombings – simply cannot be justified and to argue otherwise, to attempt to examine such acts from the points of view of their perpetrators instead of just outright condemning them, reveals the moral bankruptcy of anyone who would do so.

Which brings me to Blind Angels, currently premiering at Theater for the New City on First Avenue in downtown Manhattan and being marketed as a “nail-biting drama [that] shows the ‘other side’ of terrorism: how people who enjoy our way of life might turn against this country.”  Inspired by the story of Daniel Pearl, the journalist who was captured and beheaded by terrorists, Blind Angels tells the story of Aaron (Scott Raker), a news reporter who is taken prisoner by three secular American Muslims who are planning to launch a small nuclear terrorist attack in downtown Manhattan.  Two of Aaron’s captors are Aaron’s former college roommate, Sadri (Francesco Campari), a brilliant mathematician and weapons expert, and Danny (Qurrat Ann Kadwani), Sadri’s second cousin and Aaron’s former girlfriend.  His third captor is Yusuf (Alok Tewari), a married family man and hands-on technology expert who runs a photo and video studio in Montclair New Jersey.

Sadri is distressed that Senator Hammond (Cynthia Granville) has chosen to ignore his warnings regarding the worldwide proliferation of nuclear weapons and that her negative attitude toward him has thwarted his career.  His pique is compounded when he learns of the death of his favorite aunt (Danny’s mother) as the result of a US drone strike gone awry.  All of which apparently prompts him to mastermind the plot that forms the basis of this play.

Dick Bruckenfeld, the playwright, clearly would not agree with the sentiments I expressed at the beginning of this post.  In explaining why he wrote Blind Angels, he states:

“I wanted to write a play that would look at the other side of terrorism.  My goal was to get beyond the self-serving clich√© ‘they want to destroy us because they hate our way of life.’  I felt I could get closer to the truth by exploring why people who enjoy our way of life might turn against this country.”

Melissa Attebery, the play’s director, is also on Bruckenfeld’s wavelength, not mine (which is certainly a good thing since, if she agreed with me, I don’t think that she ever could have directed this play at all).  In a recent interview on Bronxnet, she stated:

“the characters [in the play] are our next door neighbors.  I mean we all live next door to Danny and she goes to work every day just like all the rest of us….Dick’s written a play with characters that we could all identify with.”

I’m sorry, Ms Attenbery, but he really hasn’t.  I can’t identify with a character like Sadri who plots to explode a small nuclear weapon in downtown Manhattan out of a combination of pique at the way he was mistreated by a US senator and his grief over the death of his favorite aunt. Nor can I identify with Danny in her opting to involve herself in this plot, even granting the fact that it was her mother who was killed by a US drone.  And least of all could I identify with Yusuf whose motivations in all this are totally beyond me.

Moreover, my difficulties with this play go beyond the enormous difference between my moral sentiments and those of Bruckenfeld and Attebery.  I am also troubled by the huge suspensions of disbelief that this play requires of me in order for me to make any sense of it at all.  Aaron, the son of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, has become a Reform Jew; he is in love with a secular Muslim whom he still is reluctant to marry because of his father’s opposition to their relationship. But, we are led to believe, he might yet be convinced to reconsider his position.  Or maybe not.

Sadri, Danny and Yusuf are all secular Muslims – apparently the furthest thing from jihadists one could imagine - who drink alcohol freely, engage in premarital sex with multiple partners, and dress in typical Western garb; yet we are asked to believe that they are prepared to launch a nuclear terrorist attack not out of religious fervor but just because…well, Senator Holland really was mean to Sadhi and Danny’s mother was killed, and Aaron doesn’t want to marry her just because she’s not a Jewess and Yusuf – oh, I really I don’t know what’s going on in Yusuf’s mind but he probably has some similarly good reason.  And there I was thinking all along that Islamist terrorism had something to do with Islamist religious fervor.  My mistake.

I do have something good to say about this play, however.  I thought that the acting was first-rate across the board and it certainly wasn’t the actors’ faults that they were called upon to play roles that just didn’t ring true.

In the play’s final moments, Aaron addresses the audience:

“So I have a question I’m going to keep asking: ‘Suppose one of our drones kills your favorite aunt.  And like Sadri you’re punished for speaking your mind?  Would you just stand there and take it?  Would you?”

My answer is easy: Of course I wouldn’t just stand there and take it.  I’d protest, I’d grieve, I’d get angry, I’d write letters to newspapers and my congressman.  But I’ll tell you what I wouldn’t do: I sure as hell wouldn’t plan a nuclear attack and anyone who would is so sociopathic or psychotic as to deserve none of our “understanding.”

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