Call it a theatrical Catch-22: were it not for Rude Guerrilla's penchant for producing contemporary British playwrights, local theater audiences would rarely, if ever, experience the class-conscious, heavily sexual and politicized work found in the in-yer-face school of British playwrighting. But because RGTC has produced so many works by playwrights like David Harrower, Sarah Kane, Anthony Neilson, Joe Penhall and Mark Ravenhill over the past five years, its current production, Osama the Hero, feels too familiar to really deliver the theatrical slap in the face that it should.
The title of Dennis Kelly's play prompted British police to guard the London theater where it opened last year. But the play—centered on a term paper written by a disaffected student, suggesting Osama Bin Laden is as great a hero to his devotees as Winston Churchill was to his—is really about fear and ignorance, and how the perversions and private hurts of the marginalized and dispossessed English underclass can manifest in a kind of terror that a suicide bomber could relate to.
Gary (an excellently loopy yet sympathetic Alex Walters) seems to envy the fact that Bin Laden and Co. believe in something: compared to the thugs, perverts and sadomasochists in his neighborhood, they serve a higher purpose. But when garages and trash bins begin blowing up around him, Gary's examination of Bin Laden as hero makes him the primary suspect and gives his ignorant neighbors license to confront him.
It's an intriguing setup, but Kelly's structure is awkward, and even Scott Barber's highly focused direction doesn't clarify the play's inherent flaws. You're never too sure who the play is truly about, which diffuses its intensity. And bookending a vicious beating with a series of vignettes and monologues that, I think, are intended to illuminate the complicated psyches of the play's other characters equally muddles up the joint. These characters just aren't that interesting because we've seen them all so many times before: the young British thug, the sexually terrorized woman, the prim and proper English pedophile.
On its own terms, Osama the Hero might be a disturbing, provocative piece of theater. But in its proper context, viewed against the plays and events of its world, it feels like it's trying too hard to be exactly that type of play. And that kind of hubris rarely works in the theater.
OSAMA THE HERO, EMPIRE THEATER, 200 N. BROADWAY, SANTA ANA, (714) 547-4688. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 2:30 P.M. ALSO THURS., MARCH 9, 8 P.M. THROUGH MARCH 11. $10-$20.