In his frenetically comic, politically charged play "Invasion!" Jonas Hassen Khemiri seeks to shed light on bias and misperception in the public dialogue about immigration and the war on terror.
In the process, the Swedish-Tunisian playwright and novelist exposes a truth about his craft that might not be intuitive — theater can be subversive, even defiant, and at the same time sweetly charming.
This breathless, one-act farce, translated from Swedish to English by Rachel Willson-Broyles, is somewhat scattered and uneven, but Khemiri displays a unique approach to storytelling and theatrical instincts that keep the audience engaged.
The show opened Tuesday at the intimate Flea Theater, making a return to New York after a brief and well-received run last winter at Walkerspace. Both productions were staged by The Play Company, an off-Broadway group dedicated to presenting the work of international playwrights.
Part of the charm of "Invasion!" can be attributed to its likable cast of four. Each actor plays several characters in this abstract — at times disorienting — parable about cultural divides and fear of the unknown.
In Khemiri's play, the unknown is epitomized by a single mysterious name, Abulkasem. The true identity of Abulkasem becomes increasingly clouded as the story unfolds:
— Abulkasem is a Lebanese exterminator (Andrew Guilarte) who saves his earnings to take regular leisure trips to visit his American relatives.
— Abulkasem is an Arabic-speaking apple picker (Guilarte) who is seeking asylum in the U.S.
— Abulkasem is a "famous" stage director invented by a drama student, Lara, (Francis Benhamou) during a discussion with her seminar group.
The name is even used as a verb and an adjective by brash, New York City teens, Arvind (Nick Choksi) and Yousef (Bobby Moreno), to express a seemingly endless number of things.
Most importantly, and regardless of true identity, Abulkasem is a person of interest to terrorist-hunting authorities, who present yet another version of an ever-evolving truth.
"Invasion!" runs about 90 minutes and flows freely under the direction of Erica Schmidt, who directed the Walkerspace production as well.
Three of the four cast members are also holdovers, excluding Choksi, who evokes choruses of laughter as the young, sweet-talking Arvind.
Guilarte is also sidesplittingly funny as the apple-picking asylum seeker in what might be the show's most hilarious scene, and its most discomforting.
The apple picker enlists the help of an English translator to tell his story, but it turns out the translator (Benhamou) has an agenda of her own.
As the suspect goes on in Arabic about his adoration for American musicals, while singing bits of his favorite show tunes, the translator instead paints his statement as an anti-American rant by a jihadist bent on destruction.
This odd juxtaposition of humor and despair works surprisingly well and makes Khemiri's play both distinctive and memorable.
Willson-Broyles' English translation lacks freshness at times, particularly in scenes featuring Arvind and Yousef and in another when Lara unleashes a string of expletives after getting locked out of her apartment.
The creative team takes chances throughout and many pay off, but not all.
In scenes featuring a panel of intelligence experts, white lights shine outward from the stage so brightly they make the audience feel like they're the ones being interrogated. The effect may have been intended, but unnecessary nonetheless.
Despite these and other small failings, "Invasion!" — at the Flea through Oct. 1 — remains highly theatrical and original, no matter whom Abulkasem really is.