Pleasantly Penetrating: CHerry Red probes the edge of Avant Garde

“War is for fagots.”

Two kids, four words and two meanings. In the utter simplicity of a card game, two young men set the stage for what will become an entrancing evening of intelligent comedy.

Originally written in response to the 1991 Gulf War, Anthony Neilson’s “Penetrator,” in a newly updated form, is currently on at D.C.’s Studio Theatre.

The play acts as an effective response to the current war precisely because it does not directly deal with the subject. Instead, it uses the idea of the de-individualizing and de-humanizing nature of war to climb into the deeper, darker dreamscapes of the male psyche.

The first part of the play focuses on the relationship between roommates Max (Richard Price) and Alan (Peter Wylie). Max just got dumped, so he and Alan are living it up. They’re drowning in martinis, rolling joints and doing coke like it’s Sweet ‘n’ Low, all to the tune of John Denver’s “Country Roads.”

The show is a high-charged look at two men who haven’t evolved much since their elementary school days. Max cheated on his girlfriend but refers to her mostly as ‘Slut’ or ‘Whore.’ They have a mini basketball hoop in the apartment and keep their drugs in a plastic Halloween decoration.

Enter soldier.

Stiffy (Jonathon Church), Max’s childhood friend, arrives at the apartment covered in blood and mumbling something about having been discharged. Max and Alan, spinning off their tops, try to make the best of the situation. Then Stiffy starts talking about the Penetrators and dark rooms and how he never saw their faces because it was dark and they wore gloves. He has also, apparently, learned that Tony Blair is his real father.

From here on the three men grapple with the possibility that Stiffy may in fact have been brutally raped. They are forced to confront realities of violation and betrayal and, more importantly, the past and the way in which memory plays into the present.

“Penetrator” becomes a fascinating look at fear and the way in which masculinity is constructed and how desire and homosexuality are negotiated within those confines. These ideas of imposition and control resonate in the consideration of conflict and war.

Church, as Stiffy, offers a wonderfully disturbing performance. His long diatribes on the pornography he’s seen and the sexual feats he’s been involved in are stomach curdling.

The delicious tension established in the play culminates in a stunning and terrifying fight scene, which is terrifically executed. But the characters never really overcome their childishness, and this is the lasting point.

Neilson is a Scottish playwright of the same in-your-face school as Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting). “Penetrator” was updated during the 1990s and Cherry Red has also adjusted it for performance here in D.C. (clubs like the Black Cat are referenced in the play). However, there are still parts of the play that, while they hold, don’t fit into the production as neatly as they perhaps should. For example, in the beginning of the play, Max launches into a long tirade about the use (and his freedom to use) the word “cunt.” While this still works to show Max as a character, its pointed humor is a little lost in this production’s American context.

That said, Cherry Red’s production of “Penetrator” is still stunning and tragically timely. The performance space and technological advantages of the Source Theater are well used but do not overwhelm the actual performance. Cherry Red Production’s rendition of a stunning play is definitely noteworthy and deserves attention.

-Penetrator is playing at the Source Theatre Co., 1835 14th St., Friday and Saturday at 11 p.m.

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