The "in-yer-face" theatre subculture arose over the course of the 1990s on both sides of the Atlantic. Much like the New Wave film movement that emerged during the 1960, it is characterized by stark realism and dark, often shocking, violent and vulgar material. Works by such noted playwrights as Tracy Letts (Bug), Patrick Marber (Closer), Martin McDonough (The Pillowman), and Anthony Nielson (Realism) fall into this category.
Working Man's Clothes is currently mounting a new production of another Nielson play, 1991's Penetrator at the American Place Theatre. Directed by Jeremy Torres and updated by Bekah Brunstetter, the original work addressed the demons that haunt a Gulf War veteran. Times have changed but current affairs remain the same; Brunstetter has adapted the action to 2007, where, sadly, we find ourselves embroiled in another Gulf War.
The bulk of Penetrator deals not with the war or the state of politics - at least, not the international kind. Instead, Nielson's work charts the politics of three childhood friends, in various states of arrested development. Woody (Cole Wimpee), a nomadic figure marked by mental dislocation. He emerges onstage alone, and doesn't say a word. Later, the audience hears his thoughts, but they are disconnected from any direct delivery either to them or to other characters onstage. It turns out that Woody has gone AWOL from Iraq and is running from a mysterious group called the Penetrators, who he claims locked him in a dark room and sodomized him.
This news comes as a shock to the two friends who dutifully take him in, and upsets the balance that Max (Michael Mason) and Alan (Jared Culverhouse) have created. They live in a small apartment that looks like an eight-year-old's rec room and while Alan is the more responsible caregiver of the two, that's only because Max is little more than a lazy hedonist when we see him. He has gone to seed with drug addiction and self-gratification. Both actors create the idea of the characters having a lot of history; they seem to understand each other's rhythms and ho to communicate with each other in a way that only old friends do.
But Woody's re-entry in their lackadaisical lives adds plenty of tension. Wimpee's great achievement is in how he underplays the part. His matter-of-fact delivery of gruesome circumstances is unnerving, suggesting the calm before a storm. The storm eventually arrives, however, in moments of violence that are choreographed to a tee. Wimpee and Culverhouse, in particular, engage in some very realistic fight scenes. However, Torres does not always succeed in ratcheting up the tension during the moments in between; some scenes feel like filler, and as unsettling as Wimpee's delivery can be, eventually the dialogue can feel like filler.
Penetrator works far better thematically, as Woody essentially infiltrates Max and Alan's lifestyle, assessing them as little children. He questions why they do not have girlfriends, and eventually the other characters view their lives through the prism of Woody's off-kilter perspective. Perhaps the most shocking moment is a stuffed teddy bear loses his life. In terms of shock value, it's right up there with George killing his and Martha's imaginary child in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
However, Torres does not always succeed in ratcheting up the tension during the moments in between; some scenes feel like filler, and as unsettling as Wimpee's delivery can be, eventually the dialogue can feel like filler. With so much that's great about Penetrator, it feel silly to quibble. And yet, I simply wish this production could have filled in its hollow moments and been even stronger.