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Penetrator aspires to be more serious than the bulk of Cherry Red Productions’ past shows (Killer Joe, Dingleberries), but you wouldn’t know it from the opening scenea solo recital of a Penthouse Forum-style letter, recounting the sort of tryst
that happens only in Penthouse Forum-style letters. The character (Jonathon Church) doing the reciting, however, is not Cherry Red’s typical dope-fueled, blood-starved satyriasist. He’s just your everyday alienated, unhinged Marinethe stock in trade of Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, and the rest of the Vietnam-guilt-movie crowd. He’s got all the distinguishing marks: buzz cut, wife-beater, olive-drab pants, stuttering drawl, and most tellingly, the sullen, sunken eyes of a psychopath. He appears alone, in the dark, seemingly on his way somewhere. His name is Stiffy, and he’s the center of the play, written by Scotland native Anthony Neilson in the wake of the Gulf War and presented today in an updated, Americanized form. Rather than tread farther down the path of war-movie cliché, Penetrator takes its psychotic soldier out of the psychotic military: Stiffy lands in the apartment of two old buddies, evoked by set designer David C. Ghatan with little more than a thin futon, a pile of pizza boxes, and a wall ornament that’s handy for stashing drugs. Slovenly bachelor Max (Richard Price) hasn’t seen his best friend since Stiffy joined the military; he views the veteran’s unannounced arrival at the doorstep as a welcome surpriseuntil Stiffy broaches bizarre sexual topics, enthusiastically describing the unorthodox porn available on his base. Roommate Alan (Peter Wylie) has seen enough Vietnam flicks to immediately spot the nutcase beneath the uniform even before he waxes pornographic. Max calls Stiffy “the Nelson Muntz of the fifth grade,” and it’s clear that Alan was the Milhouse Van HoutenWylie quickly goes from gregarious to sheepish in Church’s eerily passive presence. Max, the Bart of the bunch, wants to help Stiffy; Alan isn’t so eager. The distrust between them only grows once Stiffy divulges his outrageous secret: He’s gone AWOL to escape the Penetrators, a top-secret “research” outfit whose modus operandi should be apparent to anyone familiar with UFO abductions. Director Kathleen Akerley moves the play briskly through its intermission-free 70 minutes, particularly through the roommates’ early scenes in the apartment; Price and Wylie establish a playful rapport, which later collapses in the presence of Church’s deranged intensity. And once Stiffy begins to unravel, the action builds to an extraordinarily tense climax. But throughout, the actors must battle Neilson’s heavy hand. Like Coppola, Kubrick, and friends, the playwright seems to want to attack the military’s dehumanizing qualities, but Penetrator forces its characters to slog through muddy sexual metaphors to a conclusion that, as if capping some inane buddy movie, reveals nothing worse than a long-suppressed childhood secret. Cherry Red’s spot-on production can’t protect the audience from an ending that’s more Stand by Me than Full Metal Jacket.Mike DeBonis