One man's homeland security is the source of another's alienation in Yussef El Guindi's effective, troubling chamber piece, "Back of the Throat," now playing at Pasadena Playhouse's upstairs Balcony Theatre.
Following unspecified "attacks" by Muslim extremists on U.S. soil, twentysomething writer Khaled (Ammar Mahmood) receives a friendly house call from a couple of government agents (Anthony Di Novi and Doug Newell). Rifling through Khaled's shabby apartment (nicely frumped down by set designer Shawn Lee), the men in black seem interested in every detail of the writer's life, above all what's in his closet.
At first Khaled has the cooperative confidence of the entitled. But as he realizes what he's up against -- a suspicious ex-girlfriend, circumstantial evidence, racial profiling -- his easy smile turns to the stricken look of a man who just woke up to a nightmare.
For its first 40 minutes, "Throat" is a tight little ride, decisively directed by Damaso Rodriguez, who also draws specific, engaging performances from his ensemble.
The excellent Mahmood, who is making his professional theater debut, seems to actually shrink in size as he loses control of his life in the span of a mere half-hour, while Newell's secret agent projects a deliciously creepy certainty about his mission.
El Guindi's language walks a deft line between comedy and discomfort, anatomizing how "truthiness" insidiously disassembles all sense of logical cause and effect.
Khaled may be interested in the macroeconomics of world poverty, but Uncle Sam's looking for terrorist traces in lap dances at the local strip club and the shape of Arab earlobes.
The only problem is, "Throat's" story line heads pretty much where you think it's going to go, placing the burden on the writing to make that destination revelatory instead of merely inevitable. El Guindi hasn't quite figured out where the play ultimately leads Khaled, or the audience, making "Throat" just a little easier to swallow than it ought to be. And there is something vaguely troubling about his flatly drawn female characters, all portrayed a tad too broadly by Vonessa Martin.
Still, "Throat" is an anxious, twisted parable for our time, from an emerging writer with a lot on his mind, and a knot in his gut.
'Back of the Throat'
Where: The Balcony Theatre at Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays
Ends: July 29
Price: $15 to $24
Contact: (626) 356-PLAY
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes