“Infidel” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

As we walked to my car after the opening night of Infidel, the new play written and directed by Christopher Vened at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks, my companion told me how much he enjoyed going to the theatre. “I always learn something,” he said, going on to point out that, before that evening, he’d not known that the Sumerian Flood Story – one of the many ancient tales of a deluge which wipes out all life on earth except for those who have been instructed to build an ark, gather animals, and ride the disaster out – was 1,200 years older than the Bible’s version.

He and I learned a number of other things from Infidel: that in the Sumerian Flood Story, the survivors try to ascertain whether there is any dry land by sending out birds, starting with a dove and ending with a raven – whereas in the Bible, Noah dispatches the raven first; that the name of the country Iraq probably derives from the ancient city of Uruk, one of the most important metropolises of ancient Mesopotamia; that Uruk was once ruled by the legendary Gilgamesh, who lent his name to an epic which has been read for thousands of years; that the opening verses of the Koran are the most-often recited, as they are incorporated into Muslims’ daily prayers; and those prayers are performed five times a day, using very specific bodily positions as well as the prescribed words.

Moses Leon Norton. Photo by Darrett Sanders

Some of this wisdom is brought to us by John Norton (Ted Monte), an American anthropologist. In the opening scene, Norton is being ushered through an Iraqi museum by Ahmad (Michel Wakim), the curator, who points out statues of ancient gods and goddesses – shown as projections on a screen. When the pair reaches the statue of the Bull of Heaven, the projection is replaced by an actor (Moses Leon Norton), naked except for a Speedo-style loincloth and a golden headpiece depicting a bull: both the stunning headpiece and the projections throughout the show are by Sean Cawelti.

Before Norton and Ahmad can do much more than admire the statue, though, they are interrupted by a gang of masked Islamic terrorists. Under threat of death, Ahmad is forced to take a hammer and destroy the ancient statue – an “idol” as the religious zealots regard it – after which the gang takes Norton hostage.

Ted Monte (L) and Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari. Photo by Darrett Sanders

At a camp somewhere in the wilderness, dotted with small boulders, the terrorist leaders Amir (Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari) and Zakir (Michel Wakim), along with their younger hotheaded acolytes Jamil (Ronak Gandhi) and Kasim (Nima Jafari), threaten and humiliate Norton, refusing to loosen his bonds even when he needs to use the bathroom – with the result that he soils his clothes and must wear a dress loaned to him by the sole woman of the bunch, Myiesha (Aneesha Madhok). Later, despite opprobrium from the others, Myiesha washes the hostage’s clothes and treats him kindly.

Aneesha Madhok and Ted Monte. Photo by Darrett Sanders

Over succeeding days, the gang continues to make Norton’s life miserable, while frequently engaging in conversation about religious and cultural differences between Islam and the West. The leaders occasionally leave camp to phone the American authorities, demanding millions of dollars in ransom, which the ambassador (Edwin Scheibner) says the government cannot provide; he suggests they approach Norton’s family. But Norton claims his family is not rich, and the terrorists have threatened to cut off his head if they don’t get the money. Norton seizes an opportunity to escape, only to be foiled when Myiesha bludgeons him with a rock to the head. The terrorists get him into position for beheading, and then… word comes that Norton’s wife has raised the ransom. Norton is freed, the terrorists are happy, and the play stops.

Edwin Scheibner. Photo by Darrett Sanders

While the subject matter is timely, and the situation would seem to be ripe with tension, Infidel is instead static, unengaging, and annoying. Part of this is due to the didactic nature of much of the writing: the scene in which Amir shows Norton how to pray is like a how-to lecture, and seems to go on forever. Part is due to awkward staging, such as the scene changes, or when one of the gang angrily smashes a clay tablet, whose fragments and dust litter the stage for the rest of the play. Part is due to the preposterous moments, such as the ending, when Norton’s wife has, out of the blue, raised ten million dollars, and when he asks how, replies she’ll tell him later – what, a really big bake sale?!?

L-R: Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari, Nima Jafari, Ted Monte, Ronak Gandhi, Aneesha Madhok. Photo by Darrett Sanders

And part is due to what can only be described as peculiar acting and/or directorial choices: with the exception of the occasional burst of vein-bulging yelling, the terrorist leaders speak as if they couldn’t care less about what’s going on – they issue their demands to the Americans with all the zeal and urgency of an exhausted security guard at the end of a double shift, trying to decipher the list of groceries his wife has told him to pick up at Ralphs on the way home.

For a while, I thought perhaps this was deliberate, an attempt to explicate the banality of evil, in Hannah Arendt’s words: here perhaps the monotonous ennui of terrorism? But then the baddies break out into maddened shouts or point a gun or brandish a curved knife and natter on about cutting off your head. Whatever.

L-R: Bobak Cyrus Nakhtiari, Nima Jafari, Ted Monte, Ronak Gandhi. Photo by Darrett Sanders

In the end, Infidel is well-intentioned but enervating. As another theatregoer was heard to remark outside the theatre, “That was a long ninety minutes.”

Written and directed by Christopher Vened

Through October 7

Whitefire Theatre
13500 Ventura Boulevard
Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
Tickets: 323-960-7738 or www.WhitefireTheatre.com


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