Friday, February 16, 2018

161 (2017-2018): Review: AGAINST THE HILLSIDE (seen February 15, 2018)

“Drone on the Range”

Sylvia Khoury’s Against the Hillside, at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, is a well-meaning but mediocre play on a ragingly topical issue: drone warfare and its effects on both sides of the carnage it inflicts.

It’s well known that, under President George W. Bush, the American government, in 2004, began using drones to attack tribal areas in northern Afghanistan in its fight against the Taliban and other terrorist organizations. And, although the Air Force and CIA have sought to avoid civilian casualties, the resulting loss of life and limb hasn’t discriminated very well between the bad guys and the good, the militias and the citizens.

Jack Mikesell, Caroline Hewitt. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Putting the relative statistics—decidedly unfavorable to the good guys—aside, consider the ethical dimensions of this kind of combat: American servicemen and servicewomen are asked to surveil and kill people on the ground from the comfort of a command center 8,000 miles away.

In 2014, playwright George Brant approached the issue in his powerful one-woman, Off-Broadway play, Grounded, starring Hannah Cabell in a first-rate performance as a major who begins to suffer from the stress of liquidating strangers on the other side of the earth from a windowless, air-conditioned room outside Las Vegas. (Ann Hathaway starred in the 2015 revival at the Public Theater.)

A couple of movies also deal with the subject, most notably the Helen Mirren starrer, Eye in the Sky. That melodrama, in part, observes the emotional reactions of an Air Force drone pilot (played by Aaron Paul) to a particular operation he deems highly questionable.

In these cases, the dilemma focuses on the feelings of the Americans who must push those lethal buttons. Khoury’s play does so as well but, unlike the other works, also investigates what it’s like to be on the receiving end of those remote-controlled missiles.

To express this she divides her play into alternating scenes. On the one hand, we see the growing discomfort of the highly regarded American RPA (Remote Piloted Aircraft) pilot Capt. Matt Walker (Jack Mikesell), based near Las Vegas; on the other, we discover the anxieties of a family in Waziristan, Pakistan, representing the hellish existence of those who must live in fear of instant annihilation.
Jack Mikesell. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
In Nevada, Matt’s issues are tied to his marital situation with his pregnant wife, Erin (Caroline Hewitt). Erin’s concerned with how closely Matt’s become involved with the lives of the presumably innocent people he’s surveilling, especially Reem (Mahira Kakkar), wife of Sayid (Babak Tafti), owner of a store frequented by suspected militants whose mere presence there puts his totally innocent life in peril.
Babak Tafti, Mahira Kakkar. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Erin refuses to sleep with Matt under these circumstances, asking her reluctant spouse to seek help from his supervisor, Jared (John Wernke), to redeploy, and to return to flying; she admits she can’t live with him anymore under these conditions. Reem, mother of one child, Abdul, refuses to bring another into their dangerous world unless Sayid gives up his business and flees to the safer environment of a big city, Karachi.
Babak Tafti, Mahira Kakkar. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
So far, so good. Khoury nicely sets up parallel stories of how two married couples enmeshed in either side of a tragic situation react to a situation threatening to tear them apart. And then the play slowly unravels.
Mahira Kakkar, Babak Tafti. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
In Pakistan, the death of Sayid’s cousin is followed by Sayid’s determination to hold a funeral despite the danger it involves (gatherings of more than five are red flags). This drives Reem to leave him—with Sayid’s male cousin Ahmed (Mohit Gautam). After that (like the gun that, (in defiance of Chekhov’s gun rule, is displayed but never used), this most vibrant of the characters vanishes from the play.
Mohit Gautam, Rajesh Bosh. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Back in Vegas, Jared offers Matt advice on how to separate his job from his private life. He also introduces a new arrival, Second Lt. Anthony (Avery Whitted), to be trained by Matt. Anthony doesn’t understand Matt’s preoccupation with Reem.
Avery Whitted, Jack Micksell. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
This devolves into a discussion of Matt and Anthony’s differing interpretations of why she left Sayid and just what one can determine about private lives from a drone thousands of feet in the air. They even dispute why Reem habitually pressed herself against a hillside, which at least gives us a reason for the play’s ambiguous title.  
Sammy Pignalosa, Babak Tafti. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Midway through, both the American and Pakistani stories waver, and whatever dramatic thrust existed fades. Sayid—to the dismay of his uncle, Farid (Rajesh Bose), who needs money for a niece’s operation—abandons his store to teach a single student (Sammy Pignalosa). Matt disappears and Anthony, himself now frazzled, reaches out for help. Reem and Ahmed’s current situation is explained when Ahmed returns but, oddly, we never learn either Erin or Matt’s fate.
Avery Whitted, John Wernke. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Finally, in the last scene, Farid meets Erin in a doctor’s office. Wait, that’s not Farid. It’s Abdul (Bose), Sayid and Reem’s child, now grown up and looking exactly like a well-tailored Farid. And wait again. That’s not Erin, it’s the British-accented Dr. Carter (Hewitt), examining Abdul, now a successful barrister, for the hearing loss he suffered as a child and that threatens to make him totally deaf. Khoury has moved us 40 years into the future to depict the aftereffects of the drone attacks. A reasonable point but, following the initial confusion, neither convincing nor particularly profound.

For all the effort to demonstrate how the drones are damaging to both sides of the equation, the play fails to adequately reveal anything about the Pakistani side that explains their ideological positions or much about their village ways; they’re simply theatrical pawns who don’t want to be destroyed. Apart from Sayid’s insistence on the funeral, little about them seems much different from the Americans.

Only the Indian-born Kakkar has the trace of a South Asian accent, while everybody else sounds—language as well as accents—more like people from Ozone Park than Waziristan (although Ozone Park probably has lots of those as well). Reem could as easily be arguing that she and Sayid should be escaping Trump’s presidency by moving to Canada, rather than from Waziristan to Karachi.

Jason Simms’s simple set, surrounded by the audience on two sides, shows a shiny, black-tiled floor, which seems out-of-place wherever the action goes, with a rear wall depicting, in a narrow, horizontal panel, what resembles an aerial bas-relief of Pakistan’s topography. Given the few pieces needed for tables, chairs, and beds, a more imaginative solution that didn’t need so many scene shift interruptions would have been preferable. 

However, the scene shifts get a bit more drama than the play itself via the work of designer Barbara Samuels, who dims the lights to create slim, horizontal, pulsating, neon-like strips along the walls, and sound designer/composer Shane Rettig, who turns up the volume for his pounding, room-shaking musical effects.

Sydney Maresca's costumes are satisfactory except for Anthony's uniform. According to my plus-one, raised in a military family, a big boo-boo is committed by giving this officer an enlisted man's stripes, especially when none of the other uniforms are designated with emblems of rank.

William Carden’s direction lacks the drive to ignite continued interest during the play’s intermissionless 90 minutes but he does get reasonably realistic acting from his company. Most effective are Wernke, Bose, and Kakkar (gone too soon). Khoury has tackled a worthwhile subject but I do wish she’d done more with it.  


Ensemble Studio Theatre
425 W. 52nd St., NYC
Through February 25

“Did the Folks Next to Me Like It?” (6)

(With apologies to the "Did He Like It?" website.) Often, I’m very aware of how the stranger (or plus-one) sitting next to me at a show is reacting. I may hear the audience laughing across the way or behind me, while the man or woman beside me is sitting stone-faced. Or I may notice sniffling while I myself am falling asleep. Since I often wonder how they'd grade what we’ve both just experienced I’ve decided to simply ask my neighbor or friend for an on-the-spot number on the scale of 1-100 and record it here.

My plus-one, feeling more positive than I, despite her cavils, settled on a 70 for Against the Hillside.