If good acting, good directing and a nauseating riff on the slimy underbelly of the American character are to your taste, check out "Scenes From the New World," the debut effort of Amalgamated Productions. The third professional theater company to set up shop in Washington this summer has mounted an entertainingly grotesque show that pits your sense of humor against your gag reflex.
The evening consists of three related (and previously unproduced) one-act plays written more than 15 years ago by Eric Bogosian, who offered the scripts on the Internet free to nonprofit theaters. The first scene is a visit to a street corner where winos, whores, thugs, a homicidal disabled veteran and a nicely dressed boy pushing dope pass the time abusing each other. The second takes us into a trendy restaurant where a success-obsessed couple host a celebratory lunch for their recently promoted friend. What they're really eating, it turns out, is in a sense themselves. The last is a voyeuristic peep at a child actor's audition for a sleazy producer.
In the world according to Bogosian, human nature tends to be a watery sludge seeking the lowest ground by the path of least resistance. There is frequently no countervailing human spirit, and thus little internal conflict in his characters. He is known primarily for his one-man performances, which are like acidic editorials, and the influence shows in his plays. His characters don't interact so much as they deliver commentary; he is less a playwright than a recorder of life as he sees it. A solo artist can do plenty with that ability alone (and Bogosian often does it brilliantly). The dramatist, however, needs more.
Bogosian's plays never really explore much. But the good news is his sense of irony -- as devastatingly acute as it is deliciously twisted. It makes the downward ooze irresistible to watch. He also writes some terrific characters, like the Narrator, a sort of bemused guide who introduces the three scenes and then appears in them. Peter J. Mendez brings a nervous edge to the role, and he takes us on this surreal tour as if giving it were some kind of edifying need he must satisfy for himself.
In the first scene, Jon Bernthal and Jeff Pennington give standout performances as the thugs, along with Brian McMonagle as the principal wino. Tim Carlin dominates Scene 2 as Stan, the power-hungry husband. And Jeff Baker's sturdy performance as the jaded producer makes the last scene, bringing a measure of control and stability to some unfocused writing.
Director Steven Carpenter attacks the scripts with aggressive staging -- and usually comes up a winner. The exception is that last episode, in which Bogosian simply rambles until he has an egomaniacal movie star (Pennington, who doesn't quite pull off the role) barge into the scene halfway through. The rambling gets the better of Carpenter's attempts to gin up some tension. Throughout the show, however, the director is well served by sound designer Lane Buschel's industrial noise, which sounds like strip-miners attacking an ore pit with electric guitars.
The use of Studio 1019's warehouse-gallery as a performance space -- basically an empty shell of brick and concrete, harshly lit -- gives the proceedings an even colder, harder feel than they already have. It's the kind of place where things might slither. And this is the kind of play in which they do. Scenes From the New World, by Eric Bogosian. Directed by Steven Carpenter. Lighting, Peter N. Joyce; costumes, Kate Turner Walker. With Claudia Alick, Hillary Isquith, Jason Truitt and Laurena Mullins. Through Aug. 24 at Studio 1019, 1019 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-342-7827, Ext. 4. CAPTION: Brian McMonagle, left, and Jon Bernthal in Eric Bogosian's "Scenes From the New World."