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People who understand Argentina’s culture and its history of the past 40 years may appreciate Alejandro Acobino’s Continente Viril (Virile Continent) more than others. And people who understand Spanish will likely enjoy this wordy play more than non– Spanish speakers, no matter that Teatro de la Luna’s projected surtitles are easy to use (and a great advance over bulky headset translation). As for the rest of us—well, we have an intriguing polar setting and energetic staging to divert us, though it’s hardly diverting enough for a full two hours. The scene: a military base in Antarctica, a sort of geographical-booby-prize pie being rapidly carved up by the countries that occupy it. Two Argentine military men—swaggering Colonel Meléndez (Angel Torres) and wily Sergeant Benítez (Peter Pereyra)—and one timid civilian clerk, Perrupato (Carlos Parra), are more or less trapped there; their only connections to the rest of the world are via a clunky radio set, and the only other humans they see are the residents of other bases, with whom they maintain a desperate barter system for such essentials as record albums and booze. (They’ve got a larder of chocolates from 1982; the script never makes clear exactly how outdated the candy is, but we’re definitely beyond the “dirty war” of the ’70s and early ’80s.) Into this No Exit– like setting—and into Mariano Lucioni’s detailed but economical set, with its aging bureaucratic furniture and its surprisingly large first-aid cabinet—comes Sosnowsky (Willie Padín), a young scientist studying a strange local phenomenon: Groups of penguins are committing suicide. Director Mario Marcel adroitly presents the feverish intensity with which the base’s residents anticipate their new bunkmate and their ultimate disappointment with his standoffish ways. Unfortunately, it takes until Act 2—far too long—for this disappointment to turn into something more sinister. Act 1 presents such vigorously jokey set pieces as Benítez and Perrupato’s zany radio program—going out to God knows how many lonely South Pole dwellers “in defense of the nation’s frequency sovereignty”—and a goofy card game presided over by a cranky Meléndez, in which the newcomer scientist is oblivious to the rules and the soldiers use military codes to dominate. In Act 2, what has been a M*A*S*H-like farce suddenly erupts into sadism and violence, but the shift is too late and too forced. Even when done well, satire—and black humor that depends on satire—creates distance, which grows even farther for those unfamiliar with its subject or language. No matter how appealing and/or appalling Continente’s characters—and all four performances are note-perfect—the play never quite gets beyond an anti-authoritarian commentary and into anything transformative.

—Pamela Murray Winters