Who would've thought gorillas and ink blots would go so well together? The brand-new Rorschach Theatre makes an impressive debut with a raw, muscular production of Eugene O'Neill's "The Hairy Ape." Sure, the young company stumbles now and again in the course of this long one-act, but the primal energy and intensity of the performances and staging keep the momentum lurching forward like a berserk monster.

Along with "The Emperor Jones" and "Anna Christie," "The Hairy Ape" constituted O'Neill's arrival in the early '20s as a philosophical dramatist. The plays used social realism (then the rage) as mere scenery for the author's larger concerns, which the critic Lionel Trilling listed as "the weakness of man, the cruelty of the universe and the necessity of finding some way of life and thought which shall give ultimate spiritual comfort."

Not exactly breezy stuff, and O'Neill's dialogue, even in later plays, was often stilted as a result. But when he found a character's hollow insides, he could sound the depths better than any other American playwright. In "The Hairy Ape," that character is Yank (Andrew Price), a coal-stoker in the bowels of a luxury ship who, with his fellow stokers, lives in a perpetual state of soot, sweat, grime and ignorance. Unlike most of the others, however, Yank seems to embrace his degraded life--until a rich young lady, curious about the ship's inner workings, descends into the boiler room and recoils in horror at the sight of a surprised Yank, whom she calls a "filthy beast."

The incident dislodges his comfortable sense of self and place, and he begins to gradually disintegrate. The script doesn't really convince you that Yank should be so terribly upset: Having been beaten like an animal when growing up, as he tells us, why should he be so bothered when someone looks at him like one? Price doesn't give us an answer with his performance, and Jason Gots's directing never addresses the point. But whatever the reason for Yank's disintegration--the strength of the script--Gots and Price and the rest of the ensemble make it a harrowing experience.

Gots has slightly rearranged O'Neill's order of scenes, to no great effect. But his placing the audience on the stage of the D.C. Jewish Community Center's Cecile Goldman Theater brings you face-to-dirty-face with Yank's hell. You don't just watch, for example, the dramatic stoking of the furnace; it rings in your ears and rumbles in your chest. And Jordana Adelman's set makes you feel like you're in both the boiler room and occasionally some recess of Yank's mind. Though Yank's despair is existential, Gots wants it evinced physically. Very physically. The production rages and bellows frequently when you expect it, but just as often when you don't. And Gots uses the expressionistic passages of the text as effective contrast to the gritty reality of the acting.

Price, who tears through the action like a filthy, wounded beast, even uses the whites of his eyes to convey feeling. As Long, Yank's commie friend, Grady Weatherford evokes humanity along with the character's zealotry. Patrick Trainor plays a sentimental old stoker with dignity, and the rest of the ensemble provides solid support.

Linda Chittick's costumes and Peter Fox's sound design are simple but not simplistic: Both reflect something real as well as psychological about the characters and action. Eric Grims's lighting isn't as tightly focused as it could be, and the blackouts between scenes don't move as swiftly as they should.

The latter is Gots's fault, as is his staging one scene behind the audience (distracting and intrusive to the flow he establishes so well onstage). Minor concerns though, given that no matter how you look at it, the animal heart of this production feels true.

The Hairy Ape, by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Jason Gots. With Colleen Delany, Michael Skinner, Eric Bloom, Morey Kogul and Walker Lambert. Through July 24 at the D.C. Jewish Community Center. Call 202-298-9515.

CAPTION: Doing the dirty work: Andrew Price, left, and Grady Weatherford.