Mister Roberts would go positively red in the face at some of the carrying-on in Neal Bell's "Somewhere in the Pacific." The shipboard romantic activities that are absent in Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan's squeaky-clean "Mister Roberts" -- seen earlier this year in a major revival at the Kennedy Center -- are brought unabashedly to the surface in Bell's more somber portrait of life aboard another troop ship at the end of World War II.
If the hero of "Mister Roberts" didn't ask, didn't tell, or just plain didn't know, the author of "Somewhere in the Pacific" wants to pull the covers completely off the man-on-man groping in the shadows of gun turrets on the high seas. "Hey, sailor," an enlisted man on Bell's unidentified ship says to another, beseechingly, and then asks crudely for the sort of servicing that, in polite circles, dare not speak its name.
Bell's play, written a decade ago, is given a competent new staging at Olney Theatre Center as part of its annual Potomac Theatre Festival. The work, though, is rich neither in enlightenment nor dramatic detail. Once the playwright establishes the lusty entanglements among some of the shipmates -- and the virulent homophobia of some others -- he has nothing much in mind but killing them all off. Like war, love can be hell.
The story, told in 80 minutes with no intermission, weaves two primary threads, one concerning a gay sailor (Bill Army) who woos a married Marine (John Stokvis), the other involving a Captain Queeg-like commander (Paul Morella) who's lost his marbles over the suicide of his son, a serviceman. Was the son gay, too? The tortured captain launches an investigation into who read over the ship's public-address system a letter found on the son's body. The incident may be a figment of the captain's deteriorating mind because no one else appears to have heard the recitation.
"Pacific's" mixture of sex and psychosis is murky rather than steamy -- and more than a little dreary. Director Jim Petosa, working in Olney's black box space, keeps things moving, but the proceedings never acquire the crackling intensity that Bell's powder keg seems to promise. As a substitute for powerhouse interaction, having the clandestine lovers swing to each other on ropes does not quite do it.
Morella is suitably anguished as the chief officer, and Tim Getman offers a convincing portrayal of the ship's more levelheaded second in command. The younger members of the cast, some still in college, give a good account of the earthy energy of scared, angry, restless boys at sea. James O. Dunn is particularly sharp as a snarling crew member who derives a sick satisfaction out of goading the captain and the gay sailor.
"Somewhere in the Pacific" is one of three offerings in the Potomac Theatre Festival, which tends to bring to Olney fare less conventional than the relentlessly middle-of-the-road stuff the theater provides during its regular season. (The other festival productions will be reviewed separately.) Bell's drama is racier than what's normally presented at Olney. But what happens between forbidden kisses does not constitute a compelling alternative.
Somewhere in the Pacific, by Neal Bell. Directed by Jim Petosa. Set, Alexander Cooper; sound, Jarett Pisani; costumes, Brandon R. McWilliams. With James Konicek, MacLeod Andrews. Approximately 80 minutes. Through Aug. 7 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.