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Produced by Consenting Adults Theater Company at Woolly Mammoth to March 18

The Pitchfork Disney

By Philip Ridley

Directed by Rob Bundy

At Woolly Mammoth Theater Company to March 18

As a rule, it’s probably wise to be skeptical about characters named the Man, the Woman, and the Brother, especially when they inhabit plays set in deliberately unspecified metropolises. Apart from Samuel Beckett, Thornton Wilder, and a few uniquely talented others, playwrights who think they can achieve universality through generalizing are generally wrong. Throw in a production where the stage world is divided into “zones” (i.e., Pleasure, The Real World, Anything Is Possible) and you pretty much have a recipe for theatrical mush.

So the degree to which there is life in Consenting Adults Theater Company’s People Doing Bad Things—an evening that combines all the above characteristics and a few ill-advised others—has to be counted remarkable. The play is about the stench of loneliness in the age of AIDS (though it never names that disease), and about the strategems we all use to hold our noses.

Its plot centers on a man who is so afraid of being trapped in a dull relationship that he’s become an “intensity junkie,” leaping from fling to fling with ever-increasing abandon. His search for purely sexual salvation has led him down what he now regards as blind alleys (one-night stands with dominatrixes and transsexuals), and into what might be called a blind thruway: a clandestine relationship with a married woman. At some point, the two agreed that what they had together was “too strong for day-to-day”—a notion that protected his independence and justified her nightly return to her family. Now that his feelings have grown stronger, he’s less comfortable with his odd-man-out status.

More troubling, however, is that she keeps saying he reminds her of her brother, who happens to be dying of a fatal sexually transmitted disease. For the protagonist, nightmares about a long-ago instance of unprotected sex have begun to loom large, and a planned getaway weekend in the town where the brother lives only intensifies his panic.

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Playwright Charley McQuary, who heads a performance-art comedy troupe in Seattle, is a master of indirection, capable of coming up with amusingly decorous phrases for sadomasochistic activities (“enforced proximity to bodily secretions”) and perversely talented at making dissertations on sex sound like dialogue. You can’t help feeling his penchant for talking around the issues his play brings up is rather like his leading character’s fondness for avoiding commitment, but he’s certainly been inventive about making a very small concept for a sketch fill 75 minutes.

Co-directors Lee Mikeska Gardner (who has just taken up the artistic reins of Consenting Adults) and Rick Fiori have also been reasonably clever, though production requirements for their shoestring company place them at a certain disadvantage. Everything about McQuary’s writing suggests he’d be best served by a production steeped in sterile modernity, but because Consenting Adults uses the Woolly Mammoth stage during its host company’s off-hours, the directors can only make minimal adjustments to James Kronzer’s seedy expressionist setting for The Pitchfork Disney. To compensate, they stylize the characters’ movements—a good idea that gets forgotten within five minutes—and push them to the front of the stage whenever possible.

The production’s biggest problem is that only Christopher Lane is performing with any real crispness or authority. Playing the Brother, he starts out as a generic animated puppet sitting on the protagonist’s knee, and gradually shades his speeches with the sort of subtextual nuances that make a character both specific and human. By contrast, Andrea Hatfield’s Woman tends to blither amusingly but inconsistently throughout, only becoming convincing when she slows down to take stock of the mess she’s made of her life in the evening’s final stages. And the usually reliable Tim Carlin seemed so edgy on opening night, struggling with simple things like breath control and posture, that he was scarcely giving a performance in the central role.

The result is a production that’s longer on promise than on delivery, and that doesn’t let patrons hear the play as clearly as they might. McQuary’s sardonic take on the plight of those who live in self-imposed isolation does tap into something universal, but it requires performance specificity to bring it home to an audience.

Specifics are everywhere in Philip Ridley’s The Pitchfork Disney, the creepily unnerving thriller that occupies the same Church Street premises at regular performance times. From the audible crunch of cockroaches being chewed to the alarmingly explicit nightmares recited by its reclusive central couple, the production glories in making every moment uniquely concrete and particular. Oddly, the more you know, the less you’re sure of.

A chocolate-obsessed, nightmare-plagued pair of abandoned twins stands nervously at the play’s center. Presley and Haley Stray lead a close-to-feral existence in their crumbling London town house. They’re 28-going-on-7-and-a-half—which is to say, they claim to be in their mid-20s but have the social skills of pre-pubescents. Judging from their deathly pallor and the six locks on their door, they don’t get out much.

Presley (Wallace Acton) is the more active of the two, willing to venture down to the corner store occasionally to restock their chocolate stash, and invariably coming back with horrific stories of his adventures to entertain his more timid sister. “The whole world is a wasteland,” he tells her at one point, “some areas are still smoldering, and we’re the only ones left.” For some reason, Haley (Mary Teresa Fortuna) finds this reassuring.

Something dreadful evidently happened to Haley on a trip to the zoo, and she’s never gotten over the nightmares it gave her. But even if she had, Presley would supply her with new ones. They’re self-sufficient in their way, with their long-absent parents having thoughtfully left some cash and sleep-inducing medicine in the cupboard. So they’ve locked themselves in and subsisted for years on chocolate bars and medicine-dipped pacifiers. Their routine of mealtime arguments (over who gets the orange-flavored chocolate and who’s stuck with the crunchy variety), bedtime horror stories, and drugged sleep is disrupted one night when, after Haley descends into slumberland, Presley spies Cosmo Disney (Michael Rusotto), a handsome teen-age hustler, sitting on the sidewalk outside.

Though attracted enough to Cosmo to invite him inside, Presley also finds the lad terrifying, and therein hangs the rest of the tale. The visitor is aggressive, cocky, and absolutely unwilling to be touched, which makes his host crazy since what Presley craves most in the world is a reassuring hug. Cosmo, who wears a red-sequined jacket that lends his barroom profession (ingesting live vermin for cash) a certain circusy panache, isn’t the sort to cater to anyone else’s needs, being way too obsessed with his own. And when he lets in a hulking, leather-masked buddy named Pitchfork (Bill Delaney), Presley’s panic knows no bounds.

Acton’s Presley is a wide-eyed wonder, terminally skittish but oddly sweet, his hollow eyes and blackened teeth combining with his desperate need for affection to make him the most singular character on a Washington stage at the moment. His manner suggests a very small child who has learned to mimic adult behavior but doesn’t quite understand what’s behind it, which perhaps accounts for his periodic explosions from trusting stillness to hysterical motion, hands darting to his hair and mouth as if he could physically restrain the thoughts and words that tumble from him.

The others are similarly expert and peculiar, whether hulking dangerously as Rusotto’s Cosmo and Delaney’s Pitchfork are wont to do, or huddling pitifully under a blanket as Fortuna does for much of the play as Haley, cradled by oversize, threadbare furniture that reduces her to the stature of a toddler. Kronzer’s set is an expressionist wonder, with monstrous trapezoidal hallways and windows flaring from a door more than twice as tall as any of the characters. Initially, all this is hidden behind a breakaway facade that plays the opposite trick to the same effect, miniaturizing the exterior of the house so that the inhabitants within will be perceived as puny once they’re revealed.

Like director Rob Bundy, who invests the play with Pinteresque tension and no little hilarity, and lighting designer Marianne Meadows, who shrouds everything in creepy shadows, Kronzer exhibits a ghoulish sensibility and a firm grasp of what prompts modernist terror. Their production evokes the anxiety of a middle class that yearns for remembered comfort while cringing at the inexplicable, violent world outside their doors. The nightmarish storytelling riffs on which Ridley (best known for his screenplay for The Krays) has Presley embark suggest that the playwright also intended something along these lines. But even if he didn’t, The Pitchfork Disney qualifies as a niftily emblematic horror story for a quintessentially nervous age. Woolly Mammoth has become devilishly expert over the years at ferreting out weird, wired playwrights, and Ridley has to be counted among the company’s most intriguing finds.