There's lots of drug snorting, male sexual banter, and 20-something aimlessness in Anthony Neilson's Penetrator, a 1993 play that the Working Man's Clothes company is reviving in a necessarily assaultive but unfortunately sluggish production. Neilson, a Scot, is part of the British theater movement of the 1990s dubbed "in-yer-face theater." If the 1950s rebellion against the tidy drawing-room dramas of Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan spawned "kitchen-sink drama," then Neilson and his in-yer-face colleagues, notably Mark Ravenhill and the late Sarah Kane, are purveyors of "backed-up-toilet drama."
Like Kane and Ravenhill's works, Penetrator revels in foul language and sordid situations. (More about the movement can be found here.) The play is of interest mainly as a forerunner of slacker portraits like Kenneth Lonergan's landmark American cousin, This Is Our Youth, or Adam Rapp's less successful Finer Noble Gases, in which a character performs full-frontal urination.
In a wordless prologue, we see Woody (superbly played by Cole Wimpee, with a steel-spine posture and unsettling bewilderment in his haunted eyes) hitchhiking on a dark road. The loneliness of the road and Wimpee's sense of paranoia are underlined by Jake Platt's lighting and Adam Smith's ominous score and sound design, which periodically includes voice-overs of Woody's rape fantasies.
Woody, who has been discharged from the military after serving in Iraq, is about to drop in on Max, a grade-school friend who now spends his time playing video games. Designer Ace Eure has distilled slacker land in Max's pad: the shabby furnishings are dominated by a board-and-cinderblock bookcase crammed with everything from well-worn paperbacks to a stuffed effigy of George W. Bush. It fairly screams "arrested adolescence."
Max, played by Michael Mason with a nice balance of determined calm and sardonic humor, is rooming with the beefy Alan (Jared Culverhouse), who is a friend of both, though Alan's most fervent relationship is with his teddy bears. Max teases Alan by threatening the teddies with anal rape, but when Woody arrives, he begins talking about the real thing. He claims he is being pursued by the Penetrators, who have held him in a dark room and sodomized him, using bodies and objects.
Woody also does his own sexual probing, asking why the fastidious and wary Alan hasn't got a girlfriend. Adding to the homoerotic undercurrent among the three is Max's misogyny, fostered by an inability to connect to a woman on a permanent basis.
Director Jeremy Torres's production embraces the rawness of the piece almost wholeheartedly. (Early on, one of the cast members begins to masturbate onstage and is discreetly interrupted; other productions have staged more of an in-yer-hand outcome.) Unfortunately, Torres lets too much air into the proceedings. Alan's precarious position between the old friends results in a lot of searching silences before he speaks; the whole bubbles too slowly before the eruptive climax; and much of the scabrous humor falls flat. Even at 75 minutes, the production lollygags.
But what does it all mean? Neilson wrote the play in response to the first Iraq war; the original characters were Brits. That script has been revised by Bekah Brunstetter (and approved by Neilson) to apply to the current Iraq war, but the political references are negligible and the new focus mainly indicts Americans as puerile and obsessed with proving their manhood.
Unfortunately, that's a stock accusation that isn't accompanied by anything fresh or urgent. In fact, Penetrator succeeds primarily as a paranoid nightmare about the complications of friendship. Still, the muck wallowing and relentless use of f-words, c-words, and other c-words will probably leave audiences eager to find relief in war, global warming, and terrorist plots.