Khan is immediately persuasive in “Barriers” as a Palestinian actor and playwright in need of a place to take his date so he can get laid. But there’s a problem. “I live with my mother, three sisters, two brothers and their respective wives and children. I can’t give you an exact estimate of our household because I don’t know who I’ll find there every night when I get back.” Abdulrazzak’s tone is filled with the same black humor as Armando Iannucci’s, the creator of satirical shows such as Veep and The Thick of It. The key difference being that Love, Bombs & Apples focuses on those without any power, political or otherwise.
The Palestinian actor tells us about the English woman he meets outside the theatre he’s just performed in. He discovers that she’s willing to hook up with him but they can’t go to her lodgings either. Once they’re in his car, he comes up with a plan. He asks a few friends if he can use their flats but all the responses are nos. When his date mentions that she’d like to see the Wall, the one that keeps Palestinians out of Israel, a light bulb goes off in his head. How they work out the predicament ends up being semi-comic and semi-tragic. He wants some basic privacy. Under those particular circumstances, in that particular region, it’s out of reach.
By the end of Barriers, Abdulrazzak has turned a Palestinian dilemma into a universal one by creating a relatable story. Level 42, on the other hand, upsets our expectations of what starts out sounding like an overly familiar story. Khan puts on a pair of glasses and musses up his hair. Sajid is a young man living in London with his family. Describing Sajid as a nerdy introvert would probably be the kindest way to picture him. He’s struggling to find a job as well as something, really anything meaningful to do.
“Sajid Abdul Abdul is just a ridiculous name for many employers,” he says. “For a novelist, it’s perfect.”
The plan he settles upon is “to write the definitive post-9/11 novel. I was determined to become East Acton’s answer to Zadie Smith!” And so Sajid begins to write, eventually producing a book that’s as long as War and Peace. Although none of the 75 publishers he sends the finished tome to indicates any interest, its content grabs the attention of the authorities. But Level 42 begins after that, with Sajid recently released from prison. The playwright suggests that Sajid had become radicalized and ready to revolt against his adoptive Western country. But Abdulrazzak goes on to dramatize something more complex.
Prison, it seems, is more appealing to Sajid than the room he shares at home with his three brothers. Because of his name and his cultural identity, he can’t blend in or conform with society. But he’s also suffering a claustrophobic existence within the walls of his family home with no means to escape. The psychological pressures mount against him from inside and out. Sajid is already imprisoned even before the police and their dogs come knocking at his door.
Of the four monologues, “The Apple” is the most oblique. An English lad, who may be of Syrian descent, lives in a project while fantasizing about being able to afford an iPhone. He’s torn between his desire for a capitalist distraction and the imagined sense of power he’d gain by joining ISIS: “Why waste my life here when I could be spreading Islam with an iPhone and a tank? I want the hot desert air in my face. I want to wave the black flag from the top of the tank.” Abdulrazzak tries to conflate the two warring inclinations but omits the ironic humor that serves him so well in the other scenes.
Bookending Love, Bombs & Apples is Landing Strip, another ribald tale set in New York City. This time, Khan plays Isaac, a Jewish-American guy who would like to spice up his sex life with his girlfriend Sarah. Like the rest of the play, Abdulrazzak has a talent for turning something comic into a political minefield. Isaac wants Sarah to trim her overgrown pubic hair but doesn’t know how to broach the subject without coming across as a selfish and demanding caveman.
Where an American playwright or stand-up comedian might leave it at that, Abdulrazzak reshapes a conversation about a “massively un-groomed bush” into a battle over what it means to be a Zionist. The audience can consider government policies, and world politics, because they’ve been so well-absorbed by the absurdly personal anecdotes. And thanks to Khan’s unflagging performance, the lessons at hand never seem didactic or dull. He makes them feel real, a part of certain oppressed people’s everyday lives.
Love, Bombs & Apples, through May 6, at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., 415-626-4061 or goldenthread.org