Peter Morris’ “Guardians” is not so much a play as it is political rhetoric in costumes, but stellar perfs from the two-person cast make the arguments feel active anyway. Lee Pace, last seen in Playwrights Horizons’ “Small Tragedy,” and Katherine Moennig, star of Showtime soap “The L Word,” both have the fire to turn thoughtful debate on the Abu Ghraib scandal into an urgent theatrical event.
Though the actors get equal stage time, Pace owns the show, playing a slimily ambitious reporter for London’s (ahem) Guardian. He gets a boost from playwright Morris, a London-based American who gives the character a fascinating series of moral assertions that compare the infamous photos of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners with the thriving market for gay S&M pornography.
These are the same type of images, the reporter asserts. And the play sends him on some ruthless escapades to prove it, including one scheme that recalls fake torture photos published by the Daily Mirror.
Enjoying the cold logic of his dialogue, Pace possesses the cocky swagger necessary for a character who justifies all his sexual and professional desires. The actor has remarkable ease with his body and voice, rendering the reporter’s thoughts ambiguous: Are they occurring to him as he speaks or part of a casually manipulative plan to make us accept his views?
That’s an appropriate persona, since Morris designs the reporter — simply called “English Boy” — to entice us with easy outs for the moral failings at Abu Ghraib. Then, of course, we get stung with the larger implications of those excuses.
Director Jason Moore (“Avenue Q”) adds propulsion to Pace’s calm delivery by sending him on aggressive trips around the steel-and-wood panels of Richard Hoover’s set.
This reporter, the production tells us, has power and influence, so what does it mean that he’s so hard to trust?
For one thing, it means he’s part of the system that heaps blame onto scapegoats like the American Girl, the play’s stand-in for Lynndie England, the soldier court-martialed for her role in the Abu Ghraib abuse.
Moennig plays her with fierce pride, creating a West Virginian naif who still wants to believe in a country she feels has punished her for following orders. Her matter-of-fact delivery invites empathy, but even when she recalls her own abuse at the hands of army officers, she refuses to ask for pity.
Representing how U.S. jingoism can warp our perceptions of power, the American Girl is a crucial part of the playwright’s thesis. However, she is far more successful as a device than a character. Morris overcooks the symbolism of her rural upbringing, letting the woman speak in lofty metaphors that contradict her professed lack of education.
Too often, she sounds just like the reporter, though they come from different worlds. Moennig’s work may be engrossing, but the character always reads like a mouthpiece for a writer who understands his political views far better than he understands the soldier who encapsulates them.
In its final third, however, both script and actors become so forceful that it’s easy to overlook the clumsy characterizations and embrace the thinking. There’s always room for plays, even imperfect ones, that can whip frenzy out of vibrant ideas.