The Spooky Universe – Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th Street NW

Remaining Performances:

Tuesday, July 19th, 7 p.m. Saturday, July 23rd, 4:15 p.m. Sunday, July 24th, 5:15 p.m.

Running Time: 70 minutes

They say: “March 1866. Poland. Four people, each with something to hide, find what’s hardest to hide is what’s not there. Confined in the emptiness of the storehouse, they realize what they are so desperately hiding is the one thing they share. ”

Derek’s Take: Fret not, history-phobes! The Storehouse does its Deadwood-best to overcome your perceptions of stodgy period theater, packing its hour with enough “cocksucker” fusillades to stretch the very notion of frontier anachronism. Al Swearengen would indeed be proud. Here, the profanities spew from Russian soldiers about to leave for home after a three-years-to-the-day stint in occupied Poland. But before the long march back to St. Petersburg, some unfinished business – who will pay for the botched takeover and ensuing massacre of this hapless burg? Playwright Michael Silver’s taut story, with its array of stooped, disillusioned characters stuck in a near-empty supply depot, tackles the question confidently, if not always successfully; what ensues is the outline of a promising production that, with some significant rework, might one day generate some buzz.

The show opens with the normally scrupulous Sergei (Vince Constantino) toasting the memory of his brother, Yuri, who died in the invasion three years earlier. He has gone to the wisecracking Anton (David Byrd) for solace, but Anton’s a little preoccupied – he’s secretly aiding the Polish resistance with the help of a local widow, Anna (Lizzie Albert). Tonight, on the eve of the army’s withdrawal, he’s received an important document from his co-conspirators: Operation Payback is set to begin! The plot turns on the gross mishandling of the paperwork and its eventual discovery by Anton’s commander (Evan Crump), leading inevitably to a storehouse showdown, with a twist worthy of a Greek tragedy.

Silver manages to create plausible backstories for his Russian characters, all of whom have suffered some loss or deprivation that led them into the army and then this imperial outpost. But Anton, for all his appeal as loafer cast in the Catch-22 mold, isn’t really believable as a turncoat rebel sympathizer. He’s written as a nihilist slacker with little passion for anything beyond boozy good times, and it’s hard to imagine him, like Rick Blaine in Casablanca, doing a righteous turn for some noble cause with no respect for his personal safety. A similar inconsistency, involving Anna, plays out in the final scene – would this woman, still grieving after the deaths of her husband and child three years before, really seek vengeance on the very soldiers she’s befriended? Maybe, but not as she’s depicted here.

This is a play where the actors are continuously running their fingers through their hair, as if, through gesture alone, they’re trying to cram in some badly needed extra exposition. The performance, though advertised at 70 minutes, actually clocked in at 55 – far short of the time required to do this story justice. The plot points holding the storyline together – minus the too-easy device of a sloppy paper trail – are clearly visible, like the skeleton of a malnourished toddler, and with some additional care and feeding might grow into something stronger. There are glimmers of what could be in the scene, midway through, where Anna and Sergei sit talking about their respective losses. It’s a moment swirling with quiet tension, a point from which the truth of these characters could make them rivals, lovers, or something else completely. But the clock, here, doesn’t allow it – tick-tock, tick-tock, and on to the forced, shoot-’em-up closing.

And, there, when the prop gun fails to go off, it provides a fitting cosmic comment; the show, despite its dramatic setting and almost-complex characters, is, for the moment anyway, something of a misfire.

See it if: Knowing how the Russians screwed up their occupation of Poland makes you feel better about America’s misadventures in Afghanistan.

Skip it if: You expect your Russian imperialists to speak in some manner of accented English.