In the world of 99-seat theatre in Los Angeles, it is usually not a good idea for a playwright to also direct the world premiere of his play. An extra set of eyes, a talent for staging and a gentle wielding of an editor’s tool is always a plus. This is proved once again in the Whitefire Theatre’s World Premiere production of Christopher Vened’s Infidel. What begins as an interesting look at the motivation of Islamist Extremists ends up being not just six actors in search of a play, but also many disjointed scenes in search of a play.
The action starts quietly as American anthropologist John Norton (Ted Monte) is being shown artwork depicting the Anunnaki (Sumerian deities) in the Baghdad Museum. (The art is shown in Sean Cawelti’s video design which is one of the productions best assets throughout.) John and the curator (Michel Wakim) are attacked by masked, gun-toting terrorists. The Islamists consider the statues of the other gods as blasphemy to their Allah and force the curator to destroy one, the Bull of Heaven (depicted live by Moses Leon Norton), with a hammer. They think John is a CIA agent and take him as a prisoner to their desert hideout while they negotiate a ransom of ten million dollars with the American Ambassador. America does not negotiate with terrorists so John’s fate hangs in the balance.
None of the characters are given much of a back story or subtext to play. John is married but they have no money to pay a ransom. Kasim (Nima Jafari) is a sadistic captor, always causing John as much pain as possible. Young wife Myiesha (Aneesha Madhok) is too kind hearted and untraditionally Muslim for her life as an Islamic terrorist. Her husband Jamil (Ronak Gandhi) inexplicably has a British accent that is never explained. Zakir (Michel Wakim again) just seems to like carrying a big gun and wearing camouflage gear.
The play soon dissolves into mostly incomprehensible scenes. The leader, Amir (Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari), decides to try to convert John, who says he has no religion, to Islam. John, who admits to not speaking Arabic, is soon repeating prayers near perfectly after hearing them spoken once. The Muslims, who are supposed to pray five times a day, are never shown praying until a few days into John’s captivity when suddenly he is shown the ritual of the five prayer positions. Yet even here the director fails his cast because not all are barefoot, not all do the water purification before their prayers. Infidel is a long intermission-less 90 minutes that easily feel double or triple that length. Just as John is about to be beheaded, suddenly he is released because his wife paid the ransom. How that came about is never addressed. He walks off towards the sound of a helicopter as the stage goes dark and the actors come out for curtain calls. To pep up the action at one point, the playwright/director has John tell his Iraqi captors the Epic of Gilgamesh, allowing Monte to move about the stage freely and finally exercise his acting muscles as he vividly tells the first recorded tale of the Great Flood. The cast has talent but playwright/director Vened has failed them in both his jobs.
Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks. Ends Oct. 7. www.whitefiretheatre.com