Though it centers on a gay relationship between U.S. soldiers in Iraq, Bill Quigley’s “Don’t Ask” turns out not to be very much about our military’s notorious “don’t tell” policy, or even the war itself. Instead, this one-act’s gist turns out to be “Don’t have recreational sex with delusional sociopaths.” Though praised in its 2006 N.Y. Fringe Fest incarnation (and since optioned for the bigscreen), the play’s implausibilities make even its 70 minutes feel protracted in Ben Randle’s West Coast premiere production.Beginning and ending with sex acts, the real-time scenario introduces army sergeant Charles (Ryan Hough) in an irritable post-coital mood following latest shag of Pvt. Bobby (Adrian Anchondo) in a barracks stockroom. Latter is willfully oblivious to fears they might be caught, unlike his superior, a two-decade career officer who does not identify as gay. (He’s got a wife and kids back in Ohio.) If Charles is grumpier than usual, that’s because last week’s apparent suicide of an Iraqi prisoner threatens to become an international scandal — it’s suspected he was beaten and sexually assaulted. When Bobby blithely hints he knows more than he’s let on about what actually happened, Charles bullies a full recount from the exasperatingly evasive private, who, it turns out, not only witnessed the “incident,” but might have been a key participant in a wartime atrocity. Calling the deceased a “pig” and “towelhead,” racist Bobby not only doesn’t regret his actions but views them as a sort of fraternity prank (just “good men letting off steam”) he’s actually proud of. Charles’ appalled reaction prompts mutual threats — military-court punishment for Bobby, dishonorable-discharge exposure of their liaison for sarge — as the balance of power unconvincingly shifts. A lady-or-tiger ending can’t redeem a sense that serious issues touched on but underexplored by “Don’t Ask” have been hijacked and trivialized by a character whose scheming insanity recalls yesteryear’s unlamented “obsessed evil homo stalker” movie thrillers. Hardbodied Anchondo can’t reconcile Bobby’s strains of crudity, xenophobia, craziness and lofty language (the awkwardly posited former aspiring poet quotes Latin and occasionally says things like “Suffice it to say he came to regret his impetuousness”). Hough lacks vocal dynamic range, and doesn’t really look any older than his co-star, which impairs intended character dynamics as well. But regardless these hard-working actors have an uphill struggle disguising the text’s flaws, or sustaining its monotonous mano-a-mano tension. Maya Linke’s set design is simple but effective, as are subtler contributions from Anthony Powers’ lighting and the uncredited sound design.
New Conservatory Theater Center, San Francisco; 60 seats; $40 top
An NCTC presentation of a play in one act by Bill Quigley. Directed by Ben Randle.
Set, Maya Linke; lighting, Anthony Powers; costumes, Randle; fight choreography, Steven Bologna; production stage manager, Renee Levesque; casting, Jovan Olague. Opened, reviewed Aug. 20, 2010. Running time: 1 HOUR, 10 MIN.
Bobby - Adrian Anchondo Charles - Ryan Hough