Judging from the tone of the modern Russian plays that Studio Theatre has put on this season, the Slavic worldview seems no less bleak than it was when Dostoyevsky gave it voice. The latest of Studio's offerings, "Terrorism," is a gallows-humor comedy that draws energy from the proposition that pain is all that we know to inflict -- and all that we deserve.
The play, by brothers Oleg and Vladimir Presnyakov, ranks qualitatively between the other contemporary Russian works Studio has presented. It's livelier than the somewhat arid "Russian National Postal Service," a surrealist piece about a pensioner who writes letters to himself, but it's not as incisively satirical as "Black Milk," a comedy about new-economy grifters and by far the best of the three.
"Terrorism," translated by Sasha Dugdale, who performed the same duty for "Black Milk," has been staged with abundant style by Keith Alan Baker in Studio's loft-like Stage 4. But the play offers only intermittent satisfaction. Through six vignettes, the Presnyakovs set about the job of surprising an audience as to the manner in which the episodes are interrelated. The writers don't, however, bother to establish characters of much consequence apart from the pivotal figure of The Man, played with an admirable air of agony by James Konicek. And some of the humor doesn't translate -- partly Dugdale's fault. Too often, the authors require characters to gas on about, rather than simply play out, their thematic connections to the story.
Baker, directing for Studio's Secondstage program, imbues "Terrorism" with an invigorating hipness that conforms nicely to the space on Studio's top floor with its exposed brick and expansive windows. Giorgos Tsappas's set consists of sliding translucent panels, expertly deployed. The driving music by Peter Seckler that's piped in between scenes is infectious and effective. And Baker's notion of having the actors dress out of suitcases in front of us amounts to a cheeky elevation of the piece's theatricality.
The comedy gets a kick-start from a funny premise: While the public steels itself for the next assault by some subversive group or other, we overlook the much more formidable menaces of everyday life. It's the benign-looking grannies pushing kids on swings in the park and the well-meaning workplace shrinks recruited to counsel the troubled who pose the continual, and potentially most violent, threats to one's well-being.
The story begins with Konicek, whose pale, blond looks and anxious gaze suggest a Moscow Everyman, arriving at an airport for a business trip. There, he's informed by a black-hooded security guard that flights have been canceled because of suspicious luggage on a runway. Suffice it to say this unexploded cargo is as close as "Terrorism" gets to the common definition of terrorism.
In the ensuing scenes, all directly or tangentially connected to places in the man's life -- his office, his house, a nearby playground -- the Presnyakovs set in motion a chain of events in which all manner of nasty acts are revealed. Some of these highly contrived events simply go on too long: A scene in the man's house, wherein his wife (Becky Peters) entertains a volatile lover (Tony Simione), is a prime example. Their byplay falls into the category of dull and formulaic. Other vignettes wander off on strained detours, as when a psychologist (John Geoffrion) with a therapeutic hand puppet invades an office filled with grieving workers.
In the nine-member cast, Konicek, blessed with a supple speaking voice, is particularly memorable, as is Marcia Churchill, playing a genial office worker and a kindly grandma. In smaller roles, Catherine Deadman and Morgan Peter Brown have funny moments.
Although you're never totally certain where "Terrorism" is headed, a sense creeps in that the same idea is being massaged in scene after scene. Baker and his cohorts do their best to heighten the drama. At times, however, the play puts up too much resistance.
Terrorism, by the Presnyakov brothers, translated by Sasha Dugdale. Directed by Keith Alan Baker. Co-director, Amy Couchoud; set, Giorgos Tsappas; lighting, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; sound, Erik Trester; original music, Peter Seckler and Hey Kid Nice Robot. With Kevin Boggs, Rosemary Re- gan. Approximately 90 minutes. Through June 26 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.