Moving Target begins its second season with "The Conduct of Life," a play by Cuban-American writer Maria Irene Fornes about the tortuous domestic life of a political torturer in a present-day Latin American country. It's a difficult, adventurous choice. Unfortunately, this unevenly acted and directed production doesn't translate well.
Orlando, a young career-stalled lieutenant, has accepted a position as a torturer; when he comes home from work, he takes it out on his wealthy wife, Leticia. Meanwhile, Orlando is engaged in a sordid affair with Nena, a destitute girl he has "rescued" from an orphans' home. He beats and rapes the poor creature, then feeds her, believing himself to be doing her a great kindness. Eventually he installs Nena in his home, to the great dismay of his wife and servant. But Orlando is only nominally the play's central figure. He comments obliquely on his work and the illusory power it affords him, but Fornes is more interested in the man's progressive dehumanization, and his emotional degradation of these women and their response to it.
The pace of the intermissionless play is torpid for several scenes, but it snaps to life with the arrival of Tessler Stromberg as the servant Olimpia, who also bullies poor Leticia. Though Stromberg overplays her part, it's an invigorating turn and quite affecting as her anger toward her employers is replaced by affection for Nena. Juliana Bellinger is controlled as Leticia, and Morgan Dickson cowers convincingly as the waif Nena. But their gains are undermined by the miscasting of the two male roles. T.G. Finkbinder succeeds only in showing that Orlando's ineffectuality and frustration are at the root of his bullying; he conveys little of the necessary menace. Morris J. Chalick is a cipher as Alejo, his friend in the military.
Director Michael David Fox wrests several arresting images out of the many short scenes staged in Steven Siegel's all-white, lit-for-interrogation set, but at least as many refuse to come to life. There's an unnervingly loud gunshot near the play's end, which leaves one feeling more shaken than everything that's gone before.
The production steps off on the wrong foot, beginning with an awkwardly danced tango prologue between Orlando and Leticia, which apparently refers to a program note excerpted from Jacobo Timerman's "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number": "When the political prisoner was led to the torture chamber, the torturers used to comment among themselves: will he sing an opera or a tango?" But Timerman's comment is more chilling and eloquent than anything in this production.
The Conduct of Life, by Maria Irene Fornes. Directed by Michael David Fox; set and lighting design, Steven Siegel; costume design, Anne-Marie Tristan. With Juliana Bellinger, Morris J. Chalick, Morgan Dickson, T.G. Finkbinder, Tessler Stromberg. At Moving Target Theatre through Dec. 20.