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Originally published Friday, May 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Fear and paranoia electrify resonant Kafkaesque play

The spirit of Franz Kafka is alive and well on Capitol Hill. In the gripping new Yussef El Guindi play "Back of the Throat," at Theater...

Seattle Times theater critic

The spirit of Franz Kafka is alive and well on Capitol Hill.

In the gripping new Yussef El Guindi play "Back of the Throat," at Theater Schmeater, a writer undergoes an enigmatic interrogation in which everything he says can, and will, be used against him.

What is the crime he's suspected of? And how can he prove his innocence? Like "K" in Kafka's masterwork of justifiable paranoia, "The Trial," suspicion here equals culpability.

El Guindi, a Seattle-based Egyptian American, has created an Arab-American writer as his central character, and those grilling him are clearly U.S. federal agents (FBI?) investigating a domestic act of terrorism. Both elements give "Back of the Throat" an urgent immediacy that runs like an electric current through its single act.

Yet while the play reflects recent news — of fears for U.S. national security, of harsh treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay — it also reaches beyond the headlines to adroitly pose philosophical questions, along with political ones.

Mark Jared Zufelt's taut staging on Corey Ericksen's useful set opens with the writer Khaled (Alex Samuels) in anxious but civil conversation with two government agents visiting his apartment, the lumpish Carl (Erik Hill) and the mercurial Bartlett (Chris Mayse).

"Did I mention I'm a citizen, by the way?" asks Khaled nervously. But the longer the grilling lasts, the less that matters. As the writer bemoans a recent terrorism attack and professes his innocence, Carl rifles through piles of the man's reading matter — clucking "gotchas" over an Arabic dictionary, books on Middle East politics, a pile of porn mags.

Now playing

"Back of the Throat" by Yussef El Guindi. Thursday-Saturday through June 18 at Theater Schmeater, 1500 Summit Ave., Seattle. $15/Free under 18. www.schmeater.org or 206-325-6500.

Meanwhile, Bartlett (portrayed with a complex amalgam of officiousness and rage by the excellent Mayse) messes with Khaled's mind, and eventually his body.

As the interrogation grows more insinuating and sinister, there is guilt by literary association. There is end to privacy: The men want to peruse Khaled's laptop computer, which he insists is full of "personal" material. And there are no legal rights, courtesy of the unnamed but implied Patriot Act: Khaled's repeated requests for a lawyer are rebuffed.

Reminiscent of David Mamet's dialogue, El Guindi's writing achieves a murky patois of bureaucratic double talk and double-think, laced with aggressive menace. "Your ethnicity has nothing do with this," Khaled is told. "This isn't profiling, it's deduction."

In one of many blackly comic moments, he is asked: "If you were innocent, why would I kick you?" And even more chilling is Bartlett's telling blame-the-victim harangue: "You know what I really resent? What you've forced us to become!"

Just when the seesawing good cop/bad cop scenario runs its course, El Guindi recharges the play by enlarging its focus. He splices in flashbacks of Khaled's bitter ex-girlfriend, a watchful librarian and an amusingly patriotic strip-club dancer (all well-played by Kate Czajkowski) being questioned — and each "witness" projecting her own agenda onto the accused.

The haunting glimpses of Asfoor (Johnny Patchamatla), the alleged terrorist Khaled is suspected of conspiring with, add a new layer of ambiguity and poetic abstraction to the tale. And Asfoor's final words suggest that, whether Khaled is in the wrong or not, brutal tactics in defense of liberty can add fuel to the fire of fanaticism.

El Guindi's script (the title refers to how one pronounces Khaled's name) won Theater Schmeater's Northwest Playwright Competition Award last year, and deserved to. The script has a few patches that could be tightened and sharpened. But for a play as resonant, troubling and timely as "Back of the Throat," one is mainly grateful.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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