Penetrator is an unsettling drama about the shattered psyches that follow in the wake of most modern wars. The light opening of the play is enjoyable and sweet, but the pitch-dark ending is what will have you talking as you leave the theater: it's a terrifyingly decent work.
One of the only good things about the Iraq War is that it is similar enough to the Gulf War (Bush War One) to give many playwrights the opportunity to update their material and give it a second go. Case in point with Anthony Nielson's Penetrator, in which a disturbed, AWOL soldier seeks solace in his memories of a happier past, only to find that his best friend, Max, has moved on from their patented duo of "you're the brains and I'm the brawn." The Max (Michael Mason) who opens the show is a self-obsessed asshole, playing Halo 2 with his eyes glued to a TV resting atop a black egg-crate, the sound blaring, the lights from the game exploding in static waves against his glazed skin. As he drinks beer, he switches from the game to a porno, only to get interrupted, mid-jerk, by his roommate, Alan (Jared Culverhouse).
Nielson's play does a terrific job of building the camaraderie between these two; they all but complete each other's lines. Alan is the shyer of the two, overweight and mustached, but together, the two quote old TV shows and re-enact the music video of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. This, however, isn't the play that Nielson wants to give us, which is why there is the constant foreshadowing of a man hitchhiking in the rain as an ominously low voice-over rants sexual abuses, and why the program warns us of mature and violent content. The Flaming Lips are many things, but graphic isn't one of them. As a result of Jeremy Torres' direction (and of the small space), the enjoyable opening becomes layered with tension, a mood that only grows terser when this man, Woody (Cole Wimpee), actually arrives.
At first, Woody's presence is that of a thousand other plays: he is all at once crazy, retarded, and depressed, speaking in a sullen, choppy tone that somehow manages to combine all of those traits. After contradicting his own story about being discharged from the army (or being given money, being molested, escaping), he pulls out a nasty, foot-long knife, and accuses Alan of being a "Penetrator," i.e., one of the men in the Black Room who experimented on him. One of the advantages to the theater's set-up (the audience sits almost in the round) is that our reactions to the dangerous blocking become part of the show, and it would be an understatement to say that the show is not only a pitch-dark drama but terrifying, as well.
The show doesn't really answer any of the questions it presents, and it doesn't do much toward resolving the friendship between Max and Woody: there is the feeling that it is content with just scaring the audience with a lot of graphic monologues and in-your-face action. However, it is gripping, and if Jeremy Torres were to tighten up some of the long and artificially inserted pauses of the first half, it would be a far more effective scare tactic about the military. Woody keeps saying that "It was better before," and at times, I'm inclined to believe him -- the play has two distinct halves -- but the experience (far better than anything a movie can throw at you) is worth it for those who have forgotten what it's like to be unsettled by a play.
American Place Theatre (520 8th Avenue; Fl. 22)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $15.00
Performances (through 6/23): Thursday-Saturday @ 8
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.