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LAUGHING IN TERROR’S FACE

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Can you invoke the Twin Towers without eliciting a sigh of exasperation? Does a Code Orange warning affect your behavior less than the weatherman’s forecast of rain? Do you sometimes go days - even weeks, maybe months at a stretch - forgetting that you’re living in a nation at war?

The normalization of terrorism would’ve made the late George Orwell shudder, but one man’s dystopic vision of the future is another everyman’s shoulder-shrugging existence or a deft satirist’s raw material for pointed critique.

"Major Bang, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dirty Bomb," the Foundry Theatre’s sly lampoon of our current flirtation with institutionalized paranoia, reveals just how far we’ve come - or sunk - since 9-11: This multimedia romp (at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO through Feb. 19) plays with Molotov cocktails, security breaches, and the threat of nuclear mishap with many a giggle and nary a groan.

The serious nature of the subject matter might logically preclude a near-continual effervescence but the ongoing buoyancy can be explained - at least in part - by the choice of playwright Kirk Lynn ("Lipstick Traces") and director Paul Lazar to continually and coyly intercut the action with well-timed parlor tricks.

The plot itself concerns one real-life David Hahn, an ambitious Eagle Scout who attempted to build a nuclear reactor in his backyard in the Detroit suburbs about a decade ago. But as actors Steve Cuiffo and Maggie Hoffman re-enact this comically embellished biography (replete with father-son conflicts, a despotic scoutmaster’s mad ravings, and a radiation plant manager’s strange fantasy life), the two cagey performers are also making glasses of Diet Coke float in mid-air, pieces of paper burst into fire and themselves disappear from under a flimsy blue tarp ready to levitate itself.

Even more than the rope tricks, card tricks and presto-change-o costume changes (or the campy recitation of lines from "The Bodyguard" and "Dr. Strangelove" with original footage screening overhead), the chortling and chuckling elicited by "Major Bang" stems from the absurdity of the current situation outside the theater. If you thought the bomb shelter building craze of the 1950s was ridiculous, how do you interpret the present-day advocacy of survival kits stocked with bottled water and duct tape? The lightheadedness (and ensuing laughter) triggered by dirty bomb jokes and gags about mass murder must be at least partially attributable to an unspoken sense of helplessness and the giddiness that’s released by tickling a repressed fear.

Are Cuiffo’s sleight of hand maneuvers a metaphor for the slipperiness of the current administra­tion’s policies abroad? Is the shtick equating foam balls with innocent victims a coded way to illustrate how the mass media minimizes the humanity of thousands of casualties? You could say so. But this eclectic ensemble would probably wince at the suggestion since nearly every aspect of the production, including Michael Casselli’s roadshow set pieces, Wendy Meiling Yang’s ever-adaptable outfits and Raul Vincent Enrique’s sound design (which includes a Geiger counter’s gurgle set to music), evince too light a touch to support heavy-handed symbolism. Sure, this troupe has something to say but the company is also concerned with providing a good time.

That commitment to showmanship, lowbrow and highbrow alike, allows "Major Bang" to escape the ponderousness sometimes associated with experimental, multimedia productions. Somehow, a fractured storyline and wry self-analysis aren’t as off-putting when you know there’s a good piece of slapstick just around the corner.

Indeed, what’s so refreshing about "Major Bang" is that the studied air - that has long been a hallmark of the contemporary avant garde - is pointedly absent here. It’s as if the generation raised on post-modernism and deconstruction (as opposed to the one that trumpeted the ideas), has finally let go of being overly impressed by the gadgetry and the philosophy behind it all. The simultaneity of film and live performance as well as any self-referential remarks are now simply organic aspects to the act of storytelling for a modern audience. This time around, when the conspiratorial winks are made, Cuiffo and Hoffman are layering the knowingness with a naivete that forbids any feeling of smug understanding.

Outside of some out-of-place philosophical waxing at the end, which dubiously asserts that mankind’s eternal battle between enlightenment and fundamentalism always finds enlightenment victorious in the end, you’ll find little moralizing on tap. "Major Bang" is a radioactively guilty pleasure. If you’re unsure if you’ve seen something substantial or not come the final blackout, remember that’s generally how magic works - not to mention radiation.

Foundry Theatre’s "Major Bang, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dirty Bomb" runs Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 4 pm through Feb. 19 at St. Ann’s Warehouse (38 Water St. between Main and Front streets in DUMBO). Tickets are $25-$30. For reservations, call (718) 254-8779. For more information, visit www.artsatstanns.org.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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