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Review: "Jihad Jones''

Art Snob Blog
Matt Iverson (back to camera) and the rest of the cast of Cyrano's comedy, Bob Pond (left), Kevin T. Bennett, Jacqueline Manhattan and Kellee June Korpi.
Frank P. Flavin
Matt Iverson (left), Kellee June Korpi and Bob Pond in Cyrano's comedy with a social point.
Frank P. Flavin

"Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes" comes with a promise that for the most part it keeps: You're going to get a sermon, but it'll be funny.

The sermon has two threads, a statement and a question. The statement is that stereotyping, in this case pegging all Arabs as terrorists, is wrong. The question is what does it take to shake you out of your convictions?

The plot revolves around a very Americanized Arab actor, Ashraf, who is living with his parents while making $200 a week for playing Hamlet when he gets a movie offer that will raise his income by a factor of 5,000. The problem is that his role will be a ridiculously despicable terrorist. 

The idea offends Ashraf, both as a Muslim and as an actor. But his agent keeps raising the stakes. He'll be in a sexually charged scene with a Hollywood hottie and Playboy model who, it's said, always falls in love with the men she's cast with. The director is a revered cinema icon known for his social sensitivity. He'll make the movie better than the script, the agent promises, adding that it's really a satire on the American family and middle class values.

The director and hottie arrive to try out a scene and Ashraf, a fairly fragile and paranoid person who is almost as much a stereotype as the character he's objecting to playing, struggles with the personal ethics of the matter until he finally pops. 

The popping happens about three-fourths of the way through; the last quarter of the one-act performance involves more thoughtful conversation, but retains its heart and humor, even as the sermon grows more serious. 

The serious part is a dialogue between Ashraf, played by Matt Iverson, and the director, longtime Anchorage stage director Bob Pond in a rare turn on stage. Both showed fairly quiet voices on Saturday night, which might be a problem in any larger venue than Cyrano's, but worked in this case.

Pond presented his part as an aging and unflappable cinema legend, somewhat unsteady on his pins, but still with his wits, philosophical rather than emotional, and steadily pragmatic, particularly about things that concern his job. Iverson's portrayal might benefit from showing stronger, livelier contrast between his alternating moods of "No way!" and "Well, maybe."

Still, as they had their (somewhat) sombre and (relatively) low key exchange the audience was listening carefully, which speaks both to the writing of playwright Yussef El Guindi and pacing of director Dick Reichman. 

Where things get tedious it comes from the repeated use of crude language to describe the quality of the script Ashraf is asked to read. We get that it's trash in the first two minutes, there's no real reason to keep thumping it every half page or so. If the number of times Ashraf says, "This thing is (your choice of colorful expletive)" were reduced by 50 percent it might trim 10 minutes off the nearly two hour running time. 

But the cursing is part of the comedy and there was near-constant snickering coming from the audience. Much of that was due to excellent work from the supporting actors.

Kevin T. Bennett as the agent, Barry, was once again worth the price of admission all by himself, hilariously swaggering, bullying, schmoozing or groveling in a tour de force. Kellee June Korpi, the star hottie Cassandra, had only one grand moment, but it's a doozy, as she tongue-lashes Ashraf's scruples: You think there isn't much variety of roles for Arabs? Try being a good looking actress stuck with playing hookers, bimbos or virgins. The trough is full of slop and if you're lucky you get rich. Now get over it.

Even the smallest part, the secretary Peggy, had substance as presented by Jacqueline Manhattan. She had the least time on stage and, for much of, had to blend into the background. But in the handful of places where she was called on to insert herself, it was as a fully rounded character with an important impact on the plot. 

Brian Saylor has again created a fine and functional set representing Barry's 14th floor office. 

The show will continue at 3 p.m. Sundays and 7 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays.through March 9 at Cyrano’s, 413 D St. Tickets are available at Playwright Yussef El Guindi will be in Anchorage to hold discussions after performances Feb. 20-22 and will be the guest speaker at Anchorage World Affairs Council luncheon on Feb. 21 at the Petroleum Club.