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Timely Terrorism Play 'Murder the Devil' Doesn't Deliver

With ISIS hostage beheadings broadcast online and the political violence in the Middle East escalating — not to mention last spring’s Boston Marathon bombings — “Murder the Devil,” a play that explores the possibility of extremist jihad on American soil, is especially timely. Add in the domestic crisis of poverty, violence and racial inequity, and its potential importance grows. But low energy, an intricate plot that lacks emotional stakes, and underwhelming performances rob “Murder the Devil” of its power before it can make a direct hit.The world premiere of “Murder the Devil” opened Thursday and runs through September 11 at Vault 1031 (1031 S. Sixth Street).Written by Louisville playwright Cisco Montgomery (the pen name of Larry Muhammad, who also directs), “Murder the Devil” is a contemporary gangster tale about a wannabe jihadist hooked up with Chicago gangsters who belong to the Nation of Islam.As brothers in Islam, Black Hawk gang boss Bull Baby (Bryson Brewer) and his shrewd business partner Ray (Jesse “Sparrow” Lane) welcome young Pakistani immigrant Ahmed (Gaelan Genoud) into the fold and promise to help him carry out some vague terroristic plots on U.S. soil. At the same time, Ray is brokering government minority subcontracting jobs as private security in Afghanistan, sending Oz (Gary “Edjukated Rebel” Brice) overseas to head up a project that’s supposed to make Black Hawk, at long last, a legitimate business. The deal ends up too good to be true. So does Ahmed, who talks big but can’t deliver the goods. The tragicomedy of the bumbling wannabe terrorist is a deep well, as John Kern demonstrated in his satire “Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them,” which opened off-Broadway at Second Stage in 2012 and ran again in the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, last summer. I saw the CATF production, which walked the razor-thin line between darkly funny and unavoidably disturbing — underwear bomb jokes are funny, but in the current geopolitical climate, bombs themselves aren’t  — with confidence and comic skill.“Murder the Devil” plays its would-be jihadist story with a straight face, but it is impossible to take inept Ahmed seriously as a gangster or a terrorist, with his sophomore graphic design major counterfeiting skills, his clearly plastic gun and the teen angst oozing out of his clashes with his beleaguered book store owner parents (Mitch Fields and Samina Raza). So the gravity of his ambitions never really sinks in.Muhammad allows some moments of dark humor — how do you help a hostage use the bathroom if you can’t find the handcuff keys? — but the mix is off, the funny bits too few and far between amid all the serious gangster business. The script demands the characters deliver a ton of grim exposition in addition to constantly restating their philosophical and political beliefs, even between Bull Baby and Ray who presumably have worked closely together for years. The script contains meaty ideas and plenty of fodder for conflict, but at times the speeches slow the story down, despite its intricate plot.The gangster business is tough to follow at times — there’s a backstory subplot about a brother who turned informant and a baffling hostage scenario involving Swiss bank accounts and Nebraska farmers — but we do know that Black Hawk is a serious business outfit. After Ahmed’s ineptitude is demonstrated without question, Bull Baby and Ray keep him around to dig Black Hawk into a deeper mess for reasons that don’t make sense. Their act of mercy at the end is especially implausible given what we learned about the informant brother’s early demise.As Oz, the foot soldier sent often into harm’s way, Brice is a bright spot in an otherwise low-energy cast, his stage presence and command of his character infusing his scenes with much-needed tension and charisma. Saturday evening was the cast’s third performance, but Genoud, Brewer and Lane still seem under-rehearsed, stumbling over lines and missing cues. Conversations about life-and-death issues are handled as calmly as discussions over where to order take-out, but the effect isn't gangster-cool, it's just flat. A note on casting: neither Genoud nor Fields, who both appear to be of European descent, plays a credible Pakistani immigrant in this production. A production can ask for audience flexibility and suspension of disbelief in many areas, but in my opinion, this isn't one of them. Asian representation on stage is an issue in theater communities across the country, even in New York. While casting in a small theater community like Louisville can be a challenge, but it’s not out of line to expect producers to find believable actors for the roles.“Murder the Devil” could be a fun gangster movie, but on stage, neither the relationships nor the plot offers enough context or stakes to make even an anti-hero, let alone a protagonist, out of any of the characters. It’s a timely story, but one that needs more work or a different medium to make an impact.