What are the things we do that others may live? How far are we prepared to go to prevent, say, another 9/11? Is torture an effective and thus acceptable way of getting useful information? These are the questions posed by Colonel Lester Kaye (Keith Cox) in Central Works' new production Enemy Combatant, and one that the company considers by conflating John Walker Lindh, Abu Ghraib, and Alberto Gonzales into the story of a man up before a military tribunal for treason.
The play opens with JAG Captain Rachel Radcliffe (an uncharacteristically unglamorous Jan Zvaifler) arriving at the "Icehouse," a 16th-century Turkish fortress that now serves as an American military base in Afghanistan. Southern-accented and rough-hewn, Radcliffe is surprised to learn that she has been brought here to defend an American citizen who has been accused of shooting a CIA man in the head. The trial is set for the following morning, and the suspect Marvin Moorhouse is, to put it mildly, uncooperative. From the very beginning, Radcliffe is on edge as she tries to balance what he's telling her against the blandishments of careerist Kaye, who seems curiously unconcerned about how the trial is going to turn out.
We learn that's because the whole situation is rigged, and watch with Radcliffe in growing horror as Moorhouse -- who now calls himself Farhid and follows Islam -- tells the story of the riot which left the CIA man dead. Intercut with Moorhouse's story are snippets of interrogation theory made more dreadful by the way their success-coach phrasing ("because interrogation is an intensely interpersonal process") gives way to "a person confesses when he comes to believe it's the only way out" and "[the success of interrogation relies on] the utter obliteration of any last trace of human dignity," all of which are drawn from the CIA's 1963 KUBARK Document on coercive techniques.
As Radcliffe and Moorhouse begin to trust each other, Radcliffe confronts an institutionalized mockery of justice, and must decide whether to follow her conscience or protect her own ass. It's nice to see Zvaifler stretched in this direction -- a little butch, awkward, uncomfortable with niceties. There are little details in the way the two interact that nicely document the differences between them. Every time Moorhouse starts waxing poetic, Radcliffe asks some sort of brusquely prosaic question that shows she really doesn't understand him, and watching her lose opportunities to find out the details she wants contrasts nicely with Kaye's seductive explanations of how to get information from an unwilling respondent. There's not that much variety to Kaye otherwise; he's a bit of a stereotype, with his "I'm only protecting you because I know our old man" growling. Cox, who has the voice of a man who maybe once tried to scream his way out of a stone prison, does a nice job with Kaye. There's a bit where he keeps clicking a pen open and shut that's as scary as if he were doing it with a switchblade; his control of the level of tension is impressive. But there's not much there besides menace and the paranoia that has lately been masquerading as patriotism. Although it's possible that Moorhouse's story is a fabrication and Kaye is not as evil as we're being led to believe, we are given little evidence to suggest that Moorhouse is lying.
Moorhouse is based only loosely on John Walker Lindh; for one thing, instead of being a bored white kid, Moorhouse is a former Baptist and lukewarm Nation of Islam member who found himself called to learn Arabic so he could study Islam at its font, working shit jobs to raise the money to go to Afghanistan. It's a good choice, and gives the character the opportunity to dissect the hypocrisy he was seeing in his family's faith, the way the preacher slept with his congregants and always drove a new car. It also gave Central Works the chance to use lanky, mesmerizing newcomer David Alan Moss, who is the show's real knockout.
Possessed of a big preacher voice and a powerful talent, it's surprising to see that Moss lists only two local theatrical credits. The secret is that he is apparently making the jump from stand-up comedy to straight theater, and it shows. He goes into every moment, whether Moorhouse is sullen and reserved or writhing on the floor in pain, with a confidence that must come from facing down comedy club audiences for more than a decade. But he also gets the delicate bits right. At one point Moorhouse quotes from the biography of Malcolm X, the section where Malcolm was making his hajj and opening up to love, and Moss shows us how Farhid has done so as well. As a result, Islam comes out sounding like a real, nuanced faith and not simply a blunt tool wielded by crazed militants, which is refreshing in our current atmosphere.
While Enemy Combatant has writer Gary Graves' usual richness of content, it's also a little more dynamic and physically interesting, and not quite so wordy as previous works. Since this is a Central Works play being performed in Berkeley, the surprise denouement does smack of liberal wish fulfillment, but that doesn't detract from the intensity of either the performances or the questions raised, vital questions in the wake of torture architect Alberto Gonzales' recent controversial appointment as US attorney general. The ending, if choppy, is realistically ambiguous. Questions raised and not answered: Has Radcliffe committed a terrible error? Was the man we've been set up to distrust actually right? Is torture conscionable if it saves innocent lives? Or have we started down a slippery slope?