'Terrorism': Scenes of gripping anxiety

New City Stage's production of Terrorism, a contemporary play by the Russian Presnyakov Brothers (Oleg and Vladimir), begins with a jolt before it begins: The stage is cordoned off with yellow "caution" tape and guarded by two armed soldiers. I had a brief bad moment when I wasn't sure I wanted to take off my coat and sit down - maybe I should just leave while I could. Urban anxiety is never far away.

The play is made up of vignettes that are revealed to be obliquely linked, as characters reappear and the day's events emerge. Each of the scenes presents a different notion of terrorism.

Most go on much too long, clobbering us with repetition and obviousness. Whether this is the result of the didactic script or the stilted translation by Sasha Dugdale or the self-conscious direction by Rosey Hay or the large number of inexperienced actors in the cast is anybody's guess. Like much Russian literature, Terrorism finds humanity generally disgusting and mockable.

No. 1: An airport, 1 p.m. "In all of us here, something has been broken." (These lugubrious quotations from the dialogue that will follow are projected onto the upstage wall.)

Inside the guarded zone are several people, each with luggage, all well-dressed in various shades of black and gray. Everyone seems to be somewhere between worry and near-comatose boredom. They engage in a lot of labored, hostile chitchat about "choice" and whether ordinary people are "worth attacking." The airport is closed by a bomb scare.

No. 2: A bedroom. 1 p.m. "Real violence would be more interesting."

Meanwhile, back at the house, the wife of the passenger who decided to go home is in bed with her lover. Two more unpleasant people you could not wish on each other. We will learn later that husband returns from the airport with catastrophic consequences.

No. 3: An office: 2 p.m. "Toenails grow faster than fingernails."

A bullying boss seems to have driven one of his office workers to suicide. Highlight moment: The staff psychologist swishes in, in a silver jacket, holding a cat (a real and beautiful and exceedingly calm cat).

No. 4: A park, 2 p.m. "This is war, do you understand?"

Two grandmothers confess to a murder and plot another as a grandchild swings on a squeaky swing.

No. 5: A locker room, 5 p.m. "Everyone is infected."

Firemen stand around in their underwear and abuse each other, while admiring horror photos of the explosion they dealt with that day.

No. 6: An airplane, 5 p.m. "It turns out we kill ourselves in slow motion, like a film."

Two creepy guys surround the husband who went home in the first scene.

The production values are impressively high: set design (S. Cory Palmer), costumes (Amy Chmielewski) and sound design (Ren Manley). Outstanding among the many actors are Dan Olmstead and Russ Widdall.



New City Stage Company at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St. Through March 25. Tickets $22-$26. Information: tickets@newcitystage.org or 215-563-7500.