Playwright: Paul Pasulka. At: Agency Theater Collective at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Ave. Tickets: 773-680-4596; WeAreTheAgency.org; $28. Runs through: April 2
This world premiere is a disturbing play, and partly effective because of that, but it isn't a good play.
The plot and characters are thin and it's one-sided in the extreme. Skin for Skin is set in Bagdad during the presidency of George W. Bush. There, a U.S. trucking contractor working for the military is imprisoned as a suspected al-Qaeda operative. He's denied habeas corpus rights and Geneva Convention war-captive protections. "He's not a prisoner of war, he's a terrorist," says his nasty captor, Col. Lewis ( Tony St. Clair ). You see, Mr. Ayyub ( Steve Silver ) came to the USA as a boy and is an American citizen, but he was born in Iraq, had Persian grandparents and is devoutly Islamic.
A psychologist ( Shariba Rivers ) coerced into interrogating Ayyub finds him safe, sane, sober and not withholding information, which Lewis does not want to hear. Instead, he subjects Ayyub to "enhanced interrogation" including waterboarding. Ayyub calls Lewis "nothing but an ignorant and vicious attack dog for your masters," which is precisely how playwright Paul Pasulka paints the ruthless and manipulative officer. Perhaps Pasulka has based Skin for Skin on true incidents and research; still it's difficult to believe that a senior American officer in the second Iraq War would be ignorant of the Koran and willfully insist that Ayyub's birth language is "Iraqi" rather than Arabic.
Pasulka makes the conflict between Ayyub and Lewis literally one of good versus evil. Ayyub is holy, just and long-suffering while Lewis is soulless, self-justifying and impatient; a man who exercises "omnipotence without omniscience" as Ayyub calls him out, power without perception. The one-sided injustice is infuriating and gut-wrenching, but it's arrived at far too cheaply and quickly. Two shadowy and incomplete characters, businessman Abdul Walli ( Sunny Anam ) and U.S. Army Lt. Milo ( Robert Hardaway ), appear in three early scenes setting up Ayyub for reasons that aren't apparent, motivated by corruption or jealousy. The absence of clear reasons "why" is a major weakness.
Pasulka also creates two enlisted characters who are Ayyub's guards and torturers, Sgt. Lindsey ( Hannah Tarr ) and Pvt. Michaels ( David Goodloe ). Pasulka has sketched them as thoughtless know-nothings interested only in marijuana, alcohol and sex, although Michaels develops a conscience by the end. It's an undeveloped detail that doesn't impact the story, as one really doesn't get to know any of the characters except Ayyub. They all represent positions rather than people in this chilling, perhaps-too-true but schematic work.
Under director Michael Menendian, St. Clair is imposing, smart and threatening as Lewis while Silver calmly and convincingly expresses Ayyub's bewilderment, anger and self-effacement. The supporting players are energetic in two-dimensional roles. The swift play runs 90 minutes.