Funny, but Plotting Havoc Isn’t Easy

‘Modern Terrorism,’ by Jon Kern, at the Second Stage Theater

If all the would-be evildoers crawling the globe were as amusing and incompetent as the dizzy threesome from “Modern Terrorism,” a new play by Jon Kern that opened on Thursday at the Second Stage Theater, the world would be a pacific place indeed.

That’s a mighty “if,” of course, as grisly headlines from Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan and occasionally places much closer to home remind us daily. So let’s give Mr. Kern a quick salute for his bravery in trying to engender laughter from the mishaps that befall three Muslim terrorists plotting to blow up the observation deck of the Empire State Building. Not often does a critic get to employ the words “amusing” and “terrorists” in the same sentence.

The play, directed with dispatch by Peter DuBois, opens with the shocking image of a young man, Qala (William Jackson Harper), rooting around in the periwinkle briefs of Rahim (Utkarsh Ambudkar), from which a tangle of wires protrude. No, this is not an unusually kinky Craigslist hookup: their discussion turns on the possibility of Rahim’s genitals’ giving off too much moisture, thus rendering the bomb stuffed inside the underwear ineffectual.

While “Modern Terrorism” certainly has the courage of its convictions — a brutal killing takes place onstage, spattering brain matter across the wall — Mr. Kern’s characters are too superficially conceived, and the strands of his plot too formulaic, to engender the combination of sucker-punch shock and bruising humor that Mr. McDonagh at his best manages to achieve. It’s hard to truly discomfit the audience when your play is so richly stocked in primetime-ready wisecracks.

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