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"Insidious" lives up to his name. (photo by Magezi Photography)

Ibn Shabazz’s new play, Insidious, now at Road Less Traveled Theater, is a pot-boiling dark comedy that cynically revels in contemporary phobias and taboos as it twists its way through the double and triple reversals of a thrilling plot. And that’s not what I thought it was going to be! With AIDS Community Services as a sponsor and the support of MOCHA, Horizon Health, Parkview Health Services, and Black Men Talking, I was expecting a cautionary tale about HIV and the consequences of homophobia. What we get is something rather better.

Here we meet Dawud and Kara, a blissfully happy heterosexual couple, living together and planning their wedding. She’s organized and detail-oriented; he’s a guy. We quickly learn that they’re both in recovery from addiction—causing a point of amiable contention when she suggests there should be booze available at their reception for their guests. He is unwilling either to put himself in the way of temptation or to subject their special day to the debaucheries of a bunch of free-loading drunks.

The dialogue is quick, authentic, and fun. But wedding plans are a Hitchcockian MacGuffin in a play that has more in common with the work of Quentin Tarantino than with Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Edward Albee, or any of a litany of contemporary models for up-and-coming playwrights.

Shabazz quickly shifts gears to take us on his wild ride. Kara heads out for work and—bang—in the first of many dramatic reversals, Dawud comes back to the apartment with a pick-up—a male pick-up with the unlikely name “Insidious.” They head to the bedroom for sex. Add this compulsion to Dawud’s list of addictions. We’re headed in an entirely new direction to a wholly unpredictable destination.

Needless to say, “Insidious” turns out to be the pick-up from hell, the homosexual “Fatal Attraction” with a criminal edge. As one character wryly observes, his name should have been a red flag!

Insidious is as intriguing for what it is not as for what it is. The play has been promoted as if it were an educational piece designed to inform the African American public about HIV and homophobia. While it certainly will inspire discussions of those issues, the play itself is a pulp fiction that deploys scary outdated notions of AIDS to propel its plot and provide literary foreshadowing. The title character warns Dawud, with whom he has had unprotected sex, that he’s already a dead man, but that his girlfriend will die first. Well, so she might, but probably not from AIDS. Such horror-show assertions go unquestioned or qualified in this suspenseful yarn, designed more to shock and thrill than to inform.

Shabazz is talented with comic writing and thrilling plot-devices. Indeed, his play only gets bogged down when he seems to be leaning in the direction of self-consciously meaningful drama. Why should he bother? He’s onto something here. Of course, even those moments take on the overtones of those large and frankly hackneyed productions with titles about how “Mama” “got me off drugs,” that roll into Shea’s every few years. In this case, however, the more horrible events become, the more hilarious Insidious becomes, and the playwright, director, and actors seem to be in total control of this.

Recurring lines become leitmotifs for the characters’ human failings—as when Dawud insists with increasing agitation that he’s not “gay,” he’s “BISEXUAL”! Every time he barks the word “BISEXUAL!” we laugh a little harder.

Dramatic reversals are as old as drama itself. Aristotle considered peripety, or dramatic reversal, to be a requirement of a good play. Right when we think Shabazz has taken us to the lowest possible depths, concurrent with Kara’s final exit from the action, he provides one final twist. It’s a gift!

Rest assured, on our journey to the lower depths, a gun that appears on stage will eventually be fired, and a crack pipe will end up smoking. No compulsion will go un-indulged.

In time, the reversals of the plot in Insidious evoke laughter, simply for being reversals, and the actors play off of this brilliantly. Carlton Franklin’s slow takes as he enters the apartment of his misguided best friend to see what fresh hell awaits are priceless. Cool Adrienne Lewis is brilliant as the calm and collected fiancée who becomes unhinged when she realizes the plot in which she is unwittingly embroiled. Greg Howze and John Vines are masters of droll understatement. Xavier Harris is dry perfection as sociopathic Insidious. And I cannot praise the perfectly modulated direction of Doug Zschiegner enough.

While Insidious is not what I expected, I was delighted with what it turned out to be. The production continues through this weekend.