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In theory, there are several reasons for Studio Theatre to present Privates on Parade, Peter Nichols’ 1977 “play with songs.” To mark its 25th anniversary, Studio is taking a retrospective gaze at the theater of its era, so agewise, the play is ideal. That Nichols revised his script for a London revival last year is a further bonus, as is the fact that Joy Zinoman—director of the play and Studio’s founder and artistic director—lived for six years in Malaysia, the play’s setting.

In practice, however, the case for Privates on Parade is a little less compelling. For Washingtonians who’ve endured Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw over at the Signature Theatre, Privates is nearly deja vu all over again: Both scripts offer stale vaudeville gags, crude double-entendres, the usual cross-dressing, and feeble blows against the empire (British, as if you couldn’t guess from the cross-dressing). Still, Nichols’ play is more diverse than Orton’s, in both themes and moods, and Studio’s production is consistently lively and inventive. For fans of bold stagecraft, two bits of business involving water—actual, make-things-wet water—are worth the trip to 14th and P.

Nichols’ play was inspired by his late-’40s tour of duty in what was then Malaya, entertaining the British and Gurkha troops who were battling a Communist insurrection (which the Brits decorously termed “the Malayan Emergency”). Like other European powers, Britain after World War II tried to reclaim the parts of its Asian empire that had been conquered by the Japanese, only to find that the locals wouldn’t resubmit to colonial rule. Into this charged climate steps young Pvt. Steven Flowers (Jon Cohn), a new recruit who’s been trained for intelligence duty but assigned to the entertainment squad. Flowers is soon presented with two competing—and equally cartoonish—father figures. Acting Capt. Terri Dennis (Shakespeare Theatre company member Floyd King) is the Song and Dance Unit’s campy star, who dons dresses and wigs to impersonate Marlene Dietrich, Carmen Miranda, and Vera Lynn; Maj. Giles Flack (Arena and Studio regular J. Fred Schiffman) is the stuffy commanding officer, who hasn’t been to the theater since 1935. Flack believes that his mission is to bring Christianity to the lesser races; Dennis calls Jesus “Jessica.”

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Hardly a paragon of don’t-ask-don’t-tell discretion, Dennis has girlish nicknames for all the performers, including clumsy, naive magician Eric Young-Love (Tom Gualtieri); incessantly swearing Len Bonny (David Bryan Jackson); gentle male nurse Charles Bishop (Jim Ferris); and grounded airman Kevin Cartwright (Will Gartshore). The exception is the “middle-sex unit”‘s one genuinely female member, dancer Sylvia Morgan (Sunita Param). The outcome of an affair between a Welsh fusilier and an Indian woman, Sylvia hopes to emigrate to the Britain she’s never seen but vividly imagines.

Recognizing an opportunity to benefit both his new protege and his longtime dance partner, Dennis encourages the virginal Flowers to get to know the more experienced Morgan. Flowers soon proclaims himself in love, but Morgan is involved—in more than one sense of the term—with bullying ex-cop Reg Drummond (Michael Tolaydo), the company’s one-man crime wave. Drummond deals firearms to the Chinese communists—embodied by the unit’s mute and secretly mutinous servants Lee (Franklin Dam) and Cheng (Leonard Wu)—and he suspects that the clueless Flowers is actually a spy investigating the gun-running.

All this and more is revealed in the first act, which runs some 90 minutes and verges on the exhausting. The heavy load of exposition arrives in pieces and bits, which alternate dialogue, musical numbers—lyrics by Nichols, music by Denis King—and letters read directly to the audience. Perhaps Studio’s imaginative production draws on the London revival, but the original 1977 production probably wasn’t this hip. (The 1982 film derived from it certainly wasn’t.) The narrative montage and rapid shifts in tone recall Zinoman’s stagings of two complex Tom Stoppard plays, The Invention of Love (last year) and especially Indian Ink (in 1999).

Although it recounts a bloody assault, a shameful betrayal, and a predictable heartwarming resolution to one Song and Dance Unit member’s big problem, the second act is shorter and sprightlier. It opens with Dennis mimicking Noel Coward to deliver the evening’s sharpest ditty, an ode to the defeated post-WWII spirit of the officially victorious British. Venerable music-hall routines are echoed both on and off the Song and Dance Unit’s stage, with Nichols even offering a variation on the old one-step-forward gag. The debt to film technique is more pronounced in this act than the first: The repatriating Brits find themselves the subjects of a newsreel announcer’s commentary, and the play ends with a flash-forward, economically conjured with costumes and a single prop.

For Americans who remember our own country’s misadventure in Southeast Asia—and the many theatrical and cinematic reactions to it—Privates on Parade won’t detonate any political warheads. Flack’s clipped tones are distinctly English, but his imperialist neurosis is all too familiar. As for the sight of men wearing dresses, these days that’s about as provocative as questioning Britain’s right to rule Singapore and Hong Kong. Happily, Studio’s production is much sassier than the play itself. (It even illustrates the nudge-nudge-wink-wink title with three separate instances of full-frontal nudity.) The skilled cast and crew can’t make Privates on Parade subversive, but they do provide a pulse to a show that could have been merely a theatrical museum piece. CP