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Two main characters turn out to be intimately familiar with the roars and the silences of Fallujah, it’s true, but Mando Alvarado’s Throat turns out to be less an Iraq play, or even a war play, than a meditation on performance anxiety. I know, I know: it sounds reductive to pigeonhole a complicated, heartfelt piece of drama that way—never mind that Alvarado’s script does serve up the inevitable moment of coitus interruptus—but chalk the description up to deflective humor. Like Alvarado’s pressurized characters, yours truly has been known to worry about getting stuff right, to obsess about the need for perfection and the consequences of even a little misstep. It’s rough on the friends and the family, as Alvarado clearly understands, and it’s not something I’m necessarily proud of, so here’s the thing: Cracking a joke about it is my way of admitting I’ve been moved.

Of course the stakes in the get-it-right sweeps, to underscore the obvious, aren’t nearly as high for a scribbler as they are for a grunt in a firefight or an officer looking out for his troops—or even for Throat’s third major player, who’s trying to help one jarhead sort out the chaos between his ears: Maggie, or Dr. Morgan when she’s in the office, is a fresh-minted therapist who finds herself in an awkward affair with Cesar, a young Marine who’s having trouble readjusting to life in Manhattan. Last night, on her very last bender (she promises), she picked him up over a Belgian ale at a downtown bar; this morning, he’s waiting at the clinic where she’s starting a new job counseling returning vets. Complications—involving alcohol, drugs, a fragmented nonlinear narrative, and another Marine who seems to have a history with both Maggie and Cesar—ensue, and as Maggie seems to understand all too keenly, there’s the potential of a meltdown in the cards if she makes a mistake. For Cesar, it turns out, it’s a make-or-break battlefield moment that’s up for endless second-guessing, and while Alvarado and director Michael Ray Escamilla allow for the possibility of a cathartic redemption, they’re brave enough to leave Cesar’s fate uncertain as the lights go down.

Cesar’s anxiety over what he did, and what he didn’t do, in that all-important combat moment isn’t rooted merely in the bullet-flying exigencies of war: He’s the oldest in a Texas family with no father, the man of the family since age 9, worried with every breath he takes about failing—not failure, but failing someone. Raúl Castillo turns in an intensely knotted performance as a well-meaning guy who’s always felt a little thinly stretched and has imagined too often what might happen if he were to snap.

Likewise for Lisa Sauber’s Maggie, daughter of a dying woman and sister of a fuckup; she’s got her own baggage about mistakes past and obligations present, and her amends-making takes forms subtle and raw by turns. Raucous in the bar and jumpy at home, she’s fiercely collected at the office, an experienced damage-control artist efficiently compartmentalizing and coping with one snippet of Cesar’s drama, and her own, at a time. Sauber’s diction could be crisper, and even in the intimate Flashpoint theater-lab space her passions seem a little watery, but her transition from come-and-get-it party girl to I-can-help-you shrink is impressively handled: Clipboarded, white-jacketed, hair up in a bun, she exudes that fragile Nicole Kidman poise that says “Trust me, I’m competent, never mind the whiff of vulnerability and doubt.”

Todd Spicer’s loose jokester Jack is the balance for all that angst, a voice of wryness, if not quite of reason, and a tender, concerned presence, even when he’s driven to rage, in both lives. What part he plays in those lives, exactly, is one of the play’s mysteries, revealed as scenes unfold in a series of Murder on the Orient Express–style clues hidden in plain sight; some in the audience will put the pieces together midway through the 90-minute show, but no matter. Spicer makes an engaging moderator, and Alvarado saves the most terrible details of his story for last.

Some of those details, to be sure, require some mental gymnastics, but they’re apparently being fine-tuned as Alvarado & Co. continue to incorporate feedback. Puzzling missed-connection moments require certain bits of backstory, for instance, that a post-show discussion reveals to exist only in an actor’s understanding of a character, not on the page—and Jack, when I saw the show, had supposedly gone from drug addict to Marine Corps captain (a helicopter pilot, no less) in five short years, an improbability that I’m told has since been revised in the direction of the real world as the script evolves.

But those are quibbles, and the script is a beautifully written one, full of laughs and hurts and insights, too. It’s called Throat, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself caught by it once or twice.

Two planks and a passion, or so the saying goes, is all it takes to make fine theater—the idea being that production values can’t save a half-baked show and don’t matter a damn if the cast’s on fire. For the latest production at the budget-conscious but style-savvy Rorschach Theatre Company—a pass at Monster, Neal Bell’s intimate, erotic update on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—designer Debra Kim Sivigny has dug up what looks like eight or 10 planks and a bolt or two of gauzy fabric, but the passion turns up only intermittently.

Stylish it certainly is, and sometimes rousingly physical: With those boards, Sivigny builds a little wooden avalanche for actors to scramble and scrap and posture (and electrocute one another) upon, while swoops of that fabric frame a playing space that bleeds nicely out into the dark-arched recesses of Rorschach’s high-ceilinged home in the former Calvary Methodist sanctuary. There’s fun to be had with shadowplay (courtesy of lighting designer David C. Ghatan) and with various thunderclaps and heartbeat noises (William Burns), but ultimately Randy Baker’s production feels uneven. He’s kept most of the wiseassery but dispensed with the wry talking cat who helped to set both the off-kilter tone and the stakes in the Olney Theatre Company’s 2003 production; there’s an urgent emphasis on the generative (complete with much stroking of various rods and the carefully casual positioning of certain club-shaped implements) but no urgency whatsoever in the curiously muted performances of most of the principals—including, alas, Jeremy Goren’s wan Victor Frankenstein.

Bell’s dialogue can’t be helping the actors, with its frequent detours into the awkwardly expositional and the purplishly grandiose—“Go now, before the doom that shadows me falls on you as well!” Victor is required to cry at one point—and any script that, in this millennium, recycles that old yuk about how “the peasants are revolting” can safely be labeled a hodgepodge affair at best. The homoerotic gloss on the relationship between Victor and Clerval (Jon Reynolds) feels less like boundary-pushing than pandering—Bell doesn’t tell us enough about Victor’s psychology to illuminate his reasons for toying with his friend, much less the torments that drive him to build his Creature, so who cares? And to be fair, the more frenetic Victor of Jeffries Thaiss didn’t do much to rescue Olney’s staging, so perhaps Goren’s laid-back approach is as valid a strategy as any.

Like that Olney production, in fact, Rorschach’s comes to life only when the Creature does; ironic, that, or perhaps inevitable. Either way, Robert Rector’s charismatic, pitiable, monstrously vengeful wreck of a golem fixes the attention the way nothing else onstage does. Partly that’s the script: Summoned out of darkness (“Your brother tortured me to life,” he growls at Victor’s captive younger brother) into an existence that’s mostly pain, he’s a compelling locus of want—and don’t we all want, achingly?

But largely it’s that Rector’s doing fine, rangy work in a part that leaves plenty of room for it. Too bad the play doesn’t encourage more of that type of thing.CP