THEATER REVIEW - Mosque Alert

By Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times, 4/6/16

Both my reviews this week are about highly political plays inspired by true events. Each, in its own way, condemns intolerance and the manipulation of perceived knowledge.

Set in 17th-century Italy, Bertolt Brecht's Galileo is every bit as modern as Mosque Alert, Jamil Khoury's world premiere set in today's Naperville. Some contemporary religious authorities use sanctimonious arguments to condemn, say, stem cell research as surely as 1600s Church authorities condemned Galileo's proof that the earth circles the sun. In Khoury's play, bigotry is non-denominational but almost racial as Naperville residents oppose repurposing an historic building as part of an Islamic cultural center. Several Islamic characters call non-Muslims "white people" while opponents of the Islamic center refer to "us" and "them." Khoury ups the ante by also addressing Islamic intolerance when the local Imam scorns a young, gay journalist who likens Islamophobia to homophobia. Bigotry, Khoury confirms, is an equal-opportunity offender.

Khoury's play is more complex than Brecht's, which occasionally verges on polemics. Khoury employs polemics only once—to devastating effect—closing Act I with a vicious, demagogic, incendiary attack linking all Muslims and Islam to terrorism and world conquest. The falsehoods of the speech, cloaked in patriotism (impeccably delivered by Steve Silver), made me want to shout down the fictional character on stage! They also suggested thoughts and actions implied by certain Presidential candidates. Brecht's attitudes are definitive and Galileo has a definitive ending (supported by history), while Khoury's intelligent and focused script is satisfied to raise many issues—perhaps too many for the play's two-hour running time—without providing definitive endings either for his story or its characters.

Mosque Alert presents two Naperville families—the Islamic Qabbanis and Christian Bakers—who are longtime friends. The young adult kids are close social friends, while the wealthy fathers (Tawfiq and Ted) are personally tight, politically well-connected and equally corrupt. Circulating around them are the assimilative local Imam (no beard, no robe) and his firebrand wife, and Ted's pathologically-bigoted brother who stirs up the hateful hornets' nest. Political and religious complications—such as that of MINO individuals, over-assimilated "Muslims in name only"—strain families and friendships, although the wives and kids reconnect in a semi-idealistic ending even as the fathers threaten each other. There are no easy answers here.

It's a snappy two hours, fluidly directed by Edward Torres on Dan Stratton's beige-toned, thrust-stage unit set, with actors swiftly rearranging basic furniture pieces and windows to suggest the play's locations. The energetic company genuinely conveys the mixed feelings of disappointment, anger, betrayal, concern, cynicism, sincerity and hopefulness through which most of them (but not quite all) pass. The issues of Mosque Alert are large, real and occurring HERE and NOW, so attention must be paid.