Eerily echoing recent headlines, Touchstone Theatre's "Four Men From Annapolis" ties espionage, honor and sexual blackmail into a prickly moral knot.
In his first play, Washington playwright Ron Wood, himself a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, is ostensibly concerned with how private affairs can explode into the public consciousness. But his pulpy drama is as formulaic and predictable as a military drill -- a two-act rewrite of "Red Nightmare" -- and the audience is usually a few scenes ahead of the characters, which are hastily sketched types.
We meet the boys in the barracks in flashback on their first day at Annapolis. The four plebes are Jet, the flashy stud who'll stop at nothing to join the prestigious Blue Angels; Mike, the quiet, studious, secretive straight arrow; David, nicknamed "Preacher" for his Bible-carrying predilection; and Bruce, a good-time goof-off in dire danger of flunking out. Wood confines their horseplay to the small room shared by the four, which feels closer to a fraternity house at a not-particularly-taxing college.
These relatively enjoyable episodes are interspersed with present-day monologues as each man prepares to depart for the second act's reunion, occasioned by Jet's bachelor party. Assembling his characters in an Annapolis motel room, Wood digs up some shallowly buried skeletons, and soon everyone is tussling in the blackmailer's net, caught between a sense of duty and fear of reprisal and ruin.
Under Bart Whiteman's direction, "Four Men" often plays as obviously as a '50s moral melodrama, and some clumsy scene changes hinder the momentum. But Whiteman compensates with some boisterous, boys-only camaraderie from his four actors, and gets some emotional firepower going in the final confrontations.
The cast is likable through thick and thin, and the occasional rough, awkward notes in their performances (which may be laid to some stick-in-the-throat lines) add a fillip of realism. Tim Carlin is amusing as the lumpen Bruce, and he works up some authentically sweaty desperation at the end, though his speech seems overwritten by about 10 minutes. Jim Hicks adds some amiable charm to the production as Preacher; Steven John Evans overdoes the swagger a bit as Jet; and Michael Noel is a model of spit-shined repression as Mike, the best little cadet in the Academy.
Four Men From Annapolis, by Ron Wood. Directed by Bart Whiteman; setting, Chuck Vaughan; lighting, Michael Matthews and Bart Whiteman. With Tim Carlin, Steven John Evans, Jim Hicks, Michael Noel. At Touchstone Theatre (3515 N. Fairfax Dr., Arlington) through Aug. 2.