Yussef El Guindi's "Back of the Throat" could be the post-9/11 play we've been waiting for: the sum of all our domestic fears, played for uneasy laughs and piercing dread. There have been many distinguished theatrical contenders - Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros' "Omnium Gatherum," Craig Wright's "Recent Tragic Events," Anne Nelson's "The Guys" - and no shortage of staged protests against the United States' "war on terror," which, with a few exceptions ("Guantánamo," "Stuff Happens"), have been as scattershot and undefinitive in execution as the war itself.
None has probed as directly as El Guindi's, and with such mordant wit and imaginative focus, into the heart of darkness itself - into the terror of others, and of ourselves, that has poisoned and confounded the nation since Sept. 11, 2001.
The playwright's formula is deceptively simple: Two government agents visit the disorderly apartment of an unmarried Arab writer, Khaled (Adeel Akhtar), not long after the World Trade Center attacks to ask a few questions. "I was wanting to help," the shambling, bespectacled Khaled says, a little too eagerly. "It's just a random thing," says the lead investigator, Bartlett (Jason Guy), a thin-moustached dandy with a honeyed drawl and a distaste for the seamy.
Soon it's clear that the visit isn't random at all, as Bartlett's sidekick, Carl (Jamie Effros), ramps up the interrogation. Once the two G-men are done inferring the worst about Khaled's taste for insurgent literature and kinky pornography, they begin hammering him about his possible link to one of the suicide hijackers.
Khaled, a lapsed Muslim with full U.S. citizenship, may never have met or known the fictionalized immigrant Asfoor (Bandar Albuliwi), who appears in flashbacks as a hauntingly impassive figure with earnest broken English. But El Guindi's boldest gambit is to propose a thought experiment in which Asfoor becomes Khaled's Jungian shadow, speaking for, and possibly enacting, his darkest fantasies. "Facts are not the only game in town," says Bartlett. "As a writer, you ought to know that."
Director Jim Simpson nimbly uses the confinement and blind spots of the Flea Theater's narrow downstairs space to create both the real-time present and a fluid frame for flashbacks. In addition to Asfoor, we meet a trio of women - a librarian, an ex-girlfriend and a stripper - previously questioned by the investigators; all of them are played with artless enthusiasm by Erin Roth.
Roth is the cast's only weak link, reducing to condescending caricature many of El Guindi's better speeches on behalf of American suspicion and defensiveness. Carl and Bartlett, Effros and Guy walk this line more effectively, almost playfully, even as their inquiry grows deadly serious. In particular, Guy makes his mincing gumshoe an oddly compelling, nuanced heavy.
It is the sputtering, nerve-jangled Akhtar, in the challenging reactive role of Khaled, who gives the play's nightmarish absurdity its full frightful weight. He's not just broken by the end; he's broken through to something new and maybe more chilling. That final question mark will make "Back of the Throat" stick stubbornly in your craw.
BACK OF THE THROAT. By Yussef El Guindi. Directed by Jim Simpson. The Flea Theater, 41 White St., Manhattan. Through March 8, schedule varies. Tickets $20. Call 212-226-2407. Seen Feb. 9.