Jon Kern's first produced play, Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them, is an abject failure of the most frustrating, self-inflicted kind. The boundary-busting comedy, now playing at Off Broadway's Second Stage Theatre, depicts a trio of hapless would-be terrorists in modern New York City seeking to make their names as anti-U.S. warriors for radical Islam. The opening scene highlights the ballsiness of the premise, quite literally: Qala (William Jackson Harper) is kneeling beside Rahim (Pitch Perfect's Utkarsh Ambudkar), adjusting the wiring on a crotch bomb that the latter intends to explode on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. Meanwhile, Yalda (Sesame Streetregular Nitya Vidyasagar) remains out of sight, desperate to use the bathroom but trying to avoid the sight of a man with his pants at his ankles.
Despite their radically violent plans and misguided worldview, the characters in Modern Terrorism are bumbling ne'er-do-wells who are almost endearing. Rahim is a simple-minded but sweetly sincere Pakistani college student with a fixation on the original Star Wars (which he insists on calling A New Hope) imagine Woody on Cheers transplanted to The Big Bang Theory. Yalda is coolly efficient in the Mary Richards mode, a Maryland-born, hajib-wearing Muslim who turned against her homeland after U.S. soldiers shot her husband on their wedding day, but who seems overly attached to Western culture and her precious iPad. The group's nominal leader, Qala, is a Somali whose ambition far exceeds his competence think The Office's Michael Scott leading an al-Qaeda branch.
Kern, a newly minted Simpsons writer, has fun imagining a domestic terrorist cell as a collection of sitcom types, and even adds an outsider into the mix Jerome (Steven Boyer), a pot-smoking blond slacker dude who lives upstairs and somewhat improbably gets drawn into the trio's plotting. Jerome's realization of his neighbors' intentions is a hilarious jumble of contradictions that summarizes our own response to the characters. ''Whoa. Whoa. You are, you're terrorists,'' he says. ''Huh. Even true, that felt kind of racist.''
For the first two hours of Modern Terrorism, Kern and the talented cast strike a delicate balance that generates plenty of nervous laughter. Against all odds, the show seems to be working. But in the final 10 minutes, the playwright deploys a narrative suicide bomber on his own carefully constructed comedy with a series of plot twists that undo all the good will he has built up. It's a maddeningly wrong-headed move. Quentin Tarantino, Martin McDonagh, and others have proven that it's possible to craft an edgy comedy featuring protagonists who remain relatable despite outrageous criminal behavior and even bloodshed. (Certain rules apply: Mass murder is not funny. The killing of innocents is not funny. Murderous comic antiheroes need to play off of more-evil antagonists to maintain our sympathy.) Unfortunately, what begins as a promising and defiantly un-P.C. show is unrecognizable in the debris of Kern's tragically misguided ending. D+