Encore Michigan

To sell out, or not? That’s the question in ‘Jihad Jones’

Review July 26, 2015 Martin F. Kohn

Article:10028; Posted: July 26, 2015 at 11:00 a.m.

Giving new meaning to the term “struggling actor,” Seattle playwright Yussef El Guindi presents a performer wrestling with an ethical dilemma: should he accept a lucrative, potentially star-making, role in a movie, or turn it down because he’d be promoting a loathsome stereotype of his own ethnic group.

Take the money? Or run?

Ashraf, the actor in question, is pulling down $200 a week in a way-off-Broadway—i.e. Los Angeles—production of “Hamlet” when his agent, Barry, offers him the movie gig. Ashraf recoils. The script is awful (“120 pages of toilet paper!”) and he’d be playing an Arab terrorist with no redeeming qualities. He’s been down this road before. Two years previously he’d rejected a film called “Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes,” which explains why he’s stuck making $200 a week playing Hamlet.

Ah, but for this new movie Ashraf would be paid $800,000 (Barry thinks he can bump it up to $1 million); his idol, a revered, socially conscious director, will be in charge, and the hottest young actress in Hollywood, one Cassandra Shapely, has signed on, too.

So, before you can say “Dr. Faustus” or any variant thereof, Ashraf is given pause.

Part forum, part farce, El Guindi’s comedy owes a bit to all those Faust tales about selling one’s soul to the devil, and perhaps a little something to Alice Childress’ 1955 drama “Trouble in Mind,” in which an African-American actress finds herself cast in a Broadway play that depicts black people unrealistically.

All the action takes place in Barry’s office. Ashraf and Barry are eventually joined by the revered director and the hot actress, while Barry’s secretary comes and goes. Under Carla Milarch’s brisk direction at Theatre Nova, “Jihad Jones” is consistently entertaining. It runs about 70 minutes (20 minutes less than the program indicates) and any greater length would risk emphasizing the play’s flaws, chief among them that it’s more an intellectual exercise than a look at real people in a real situation.

Which doesn’t mean Milarch and her cast do their darnedest not to notice. Michael Lopetrone is nicely understated as Ashraf, except for when the script calls for over-the-top acting. Dan Morrison is humorously fawning as Barry, Ashraf’s agent. As the idolized director, Julius, Phil Powers radiates a sense of being supremely comfortable about his place in the world. As Cassandra, Clearie McCarthy is underpowered as someone who is supposed to have taken Hollywood by storm, especially in contrast to Elizabeth Fritsch’s forceful portrayal of Peggy, Barry’s secretary.

Daniel C. Walker is credited as the production designer. Among his costume choices, Julius’ shorts and photo vest are just perfect, as is Peggy’s loud, bold dress. Barry’s rather bare-bones office does the job, and be sure to notice the realistic fake movie posters on the wall behind his desk, my favorite being “Gingerbread Man 2: The Passion of the Crust.”

Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes
Theatre Nova
The Yellow Barn, 416 W. Huron, Ann Arbor
July 24–August 16, 2015;
Pay what you can with $20.00 suggested