The setup of "Continente Viril" sounds like the beginning of a joke: A scientist, a clerk and two soldiers are living on an Argentine military base in the Antarctic. The scientist is visiting to conduct a study of penguins on the base, prompted after a number of them apparently committed suicide.

"Did you notice anything strange about them?" he asks one of his hosts. "Yes," the soldier responds. "They suicided!"

Most of Teatro de la Luna's "Continente Viril" ("Virile Continent") is as breezy as that punch line, though when the scientist's closing monologue speaks of a "rite of passage," you may feel as if you've missed something. Indeed, in the playbill, director (and Teatro co-founder) Mario Marcel refers cryptically to a historical moment captured in Alejandro Acobino's comedy, as well as "happenings that, ghostlike, prowl through various generations of Argentines even today." With no specifics about what those happenings might be -- not even a time period is specified -- theatergoers not intimately familiar with Latin American history will likely view "Continente Viril" as nothing more than a slight story about four men and some kamikaze birds.

Even the acting style is accorded weight that doesn't seem to be earned: Marcel refers to his approach as "surrealistic grotesque satire," though audiences may just call it slapstick. Teatro's cast members throw a lot of energy into their odd characters, especially Carlos Parra as the base's slightly neurotic but relentlessly cheery administrator, Perrupato, and Angel Torres as Col. Melendez, a never-satisfied browbeater who expresses frustration by furiously slapping at his own head. Willie Padin and Teatro regular Peter Pereyra play the more subdued scientist, Sosnowsky, and underling Sgt. Benitez, respectively, and although neither character is overtly comic, each gets his share of one-liners as well.

Despite its occasional funny moments, the two-act "Continente Viril" tends to drag, the victim of a weak narrative. Not much happens in nearly two hours: Sosnowsky talks into his tape recorder about his observations, the other guys check out his credentials and ask questions about his career, and quite often they simply get drunk. Act 2 moves a little more briskly, with an unsuccessful card game that shows off the cast's timing and an unexpected dramatic turn in which Sosnowsky, having come up with a theory about the penguins' behavior, now has to fear for his own life.

All of the action takes place on Marcel's divided set, dominated by the base's office/radio station with one corner of the stage, helped by slides projected on a background screen, serving as the great outdoors.

As with all of Teatro's productions, "Continente Viril" is presented in Spanish, though the company's method of interpretation for English speakers has changed: Instead of the traditional simultaneous interpretation via headset, this staging uses surtitles. The dialogue, translated by Gae Schmitt, is clear and well timed; one drawback is the placement of the surtitle screen in the front of the stage, which makes it more difficult to read and keep one's eyes on what's going on than if the projection were set toward the back.

The bigger problem, however, is the failure of Acobino's script to illuminate any of the deeper meaning his story seems intended to impart. At one point Sosnowsky admits, "Sometimes science doesn't have the answers to all enigmas." Neither do critics.

Continente Viril, by Alejandro Acobino, translated by Gae Schmitt. Directed by Mario Marcel. Set, Mario Marcel; lighting, Ayun Fedorcha; sound, Mario Marcel; costumes, Nucky Walder. Approximately two hours. Through June 18 at Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Call 703-548-3092 or visit www.teatrodelaluna.org.

Carlos Parra, left, Angel Torres and Peter Pereyra in "Continente Viril."