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Paulanne Simmons

Living In Fear

"Wrong Barbarians"
Directed by Vincent Marano
Presented by Present Tense Productions
Cherry Lane Theatre (part of the N.Y. International Fringe Festival)
38 Commerce St.
Aug 13 at 6:15 p.m., Aug. 17 at 9 p.m., Aug. 21 at 12 noon, Aug 24 at 10:15 p.m., Aug. 27 at 7:30 p.m.
$15, Reservations: (212) 279-4488, outside New York (888) FringeNYC or www.FringeNYC.org
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Aug 13, 2004

Playwright Timothy Nolan says he began writing "Wrong Barbarians" (at the Cherry Lane Theatre, as part of the Eighth Annual New York International Fringe Festival) after reading about an "educated, open-minded, downright liberal" woman who turned in three medical students she assumed were terrorists.

"Wrong Barbarians," directed by Vincent Marano, asks what would make such a woman commit such an act. What would "terrorists" feel as they were put through such an ordeal? It does so by placing two ordinary people, a teacher, Mrs. Stone (Patricia Sones) and Adam, a black man who is also a Muslim (Gil Deeble) in an ordinary diner and following the suspicion, uncertainty, anger and regret that ensues.

Adam is harassed by two police officers (William Charles Mitchell and Tod Engle) who find his backpack on a subway train. He is advised and cautioned by his dead father, a former master sergeant in the U.S. Army (Mitchell again). He makes phone calls that are alternately innocent and sinister. (This may leave more than a few in the audience scratching their head.)

Mrs. Stone endures the visit of a colleague, Mr. Tepper (Tod Engle again), who is worried that a junior terrorist is at work in their school. She answers the questions of the no-nonsense Special Agent Reilly (the excellent Gena Bardwell) who comes to investigate after she's been tipped off by Tepper.

Stone is torn between her fear and her sense of justice, which tells her (a good American and a history teacher) that her fears may be unfounded. At one moment she apologizes to Adam; the next moment she is turning him in. (This may cause more than a few confused member of the audience to murmur, "make up your mind, lady.")

Adam is determined to stay and stick it out. This is his country and he has a right to a meal in a diner, despite the angry stares of Mrs. Stone and the distain of the waitress.

"Wrong Barbarians" could have been a very effective play. It has some engaging moments and many lines that really hit the spot - "If we were more afraid on the day before there wouldn't have been a day after" or the explanation of how mad people become frightened and frightened people become mad. But there are simply not enough of them.

Somewhere along the line either Nolan or Marano decided to use a surreal, fantastical approach to the very real dilemma many Americans find themselves in these days. As a result it's unclear what is actually happening to these people in the diner, what is happening in their minds, and what is not happening at all.

Although the play is well over an hour in length, the audience never learns why Adam and Mrs. Stone are in the diner (or why they don't leave), how they have personally been affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks (where they were at the time and whether or not they lost a loved one) or what kind of people they were before that event changed their lives.

Most unfortunate, Adam and Mrs. Stone do not confront each other until the end of the play, and even then they talk to each other while facing the audience. One can only wonder why.

It is said that when the diminutive Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," visited Abraham Lincoln in the White House, the President greeted her with the words, "So here is the little lady who caused the big war."

One may speculate whether Stowe really caused the war, but there is little doubt that her novel roused the passions of all those opposed to slavery and hardened their resolve to end that peculiar institution. She did this not by quoting the constitution or making high-minded statements, but rather by creating characters that touched people's hearts.

"Wrong Barbarians" has a great premise but an unfulfilled promise. Nolan has every right to be outraged. Perhaps if he went back to the drawing board and retold his story without all the intellectual twists and abstract idealism others might feel his outrage too. [Simmons]

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