Proving Mr. Jennings

Actors Workshop Theatre

Though Americans have been asked to believe that all the bad guys out to destroy freedom are foreigners (leaving aside the likes of Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, and Matthew Hale), after last week the British can be excused any fears they might have about terrorists in their midst. But even before last week, Tony Blair’s government was dutifully following our lead, viewing civil liberties as a necessary casualty in attempts to make the country safe.

You’d think that a British play about the extreme measures that government and military officials take when it comes to Al Qaeda operatives might offer some insights into this new, urgent reality. But James Walker’s quasi-Orwellian Proving Mr. Jennings does nothing of the sort. Though it won the 2004 King’s Cross New Writing Award, like Guantanamo–the other 2004 smash hit from Britain about terrorism–it offers unassailable, well-worn gripes instead of meaningful satire. At least Guantanamo had a certain documentary value, consisting entirely of the verbatim interviews that novelist Gillian Slovo and journalist Victoria Brittain conducted with people embroiled in the human rights quagmire at the infamous detention center. Walker, who’s now 26, has merely produced a muddled, overwrought fantasy.

In the lengthy first scene, 40-ish attorney Allen Jennings checks in to a hospital for a heart transplant only to find that his nymphomaniac nurse is a pill popper with no medical training. There’s blood on the gown he’s given to wear, and his health screening includes questions like “Have you ever participated in genocide?” and “Are you a member of any banned groups?” The play’s awkward mix of The Benny Hill Show and Franz Kafka takes a darker turn in the second scene, when Jennings wakes up from his operation in some sort of military barrack. There he gets the news that finally sets the play in motion: a chilly doctor tells him tersely that the surgeon found a bomb where Jennings’s heart should have been, and Jennings has been arrested as a terrorist.

Having created a magical, resonant metaphor–a lawyer with a bomb for a heart–Walker proceeds to ignore it. The overzealous interrogators who cajole and torture Jennings into confessing his guilt don’t see him as a terrifying marvel of terrorist ingenuity, a fantastic humanoid weapon capable of detonation. They treat him exactly as though he’d had an everyday incendiary device in his briefcase, and the play’s central conceit becomes irrelevant.

The reasoning used in two interrogation scenes, the first by “bad cop” Agent Psmith (“with a silent P,” he says) and the second by the unctuous Colonel Loveday, is what you might expect from a high school student who’s consulted a few of his friends’ blogs and the Cliffs Notes on 1984. Psmith doesn’t have to prove Jennings’s guilt, he says, because “this is the era of preemptive action.” Arrest alone is persuasive evidence of the citizen’s guilt. A video of Jennings’s wife and children on holiday is such a perfect imitation of a home movie that it must be a terrorist training tape. The home secretary has decreed that dreams are now admissible as evidence against a defendant. If Walker had created a convincing picture of a police state akin to Oceania in 1984, such logic might have coalesced into something terrifying. Instead Psmith and Loveday reflect little but the limitations of the playwright’s imagination: they’re straw men. Psmith in particular is a cartoonish buffoon who believes that Muslims circumcise llamas with blades they keep in their lederhosen.

In this Actors Workshop Theatre production, G.J. Cederquist’s underrehearsed cast attempts to milk blustery comedy from most scenes when the distorted logic of farce would have been a better fit. This slows the pacing and drains any urgency the script might have had. Worse still are the dramatically untenable moments: Jennings begs Psmith to remove the jumper cables that deliver electric shocks to his legs when he could simply reach down and unclip them himself.

Walker’s adolescent rant takes two overinflated hours to suggest that torture produces false confessions, paranoia contributes to fascism, bureaucrats distort reality, and civil liberties are important. Perhaps in our black-and-white Age of Sarcasm (routinely mis-identified as the Age of Irony), satirical indirection and wit have become lost arts. In any case, we can expect additional facile political theater from across the pond: Walker just got a commission from the National Theatre.

WHEN Through 9/3: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM

WHERE Actors Workshop Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr

PRICE $20-$25

INFO 773-7228-7529

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jan Ellen Graves.