At one point in “How to Win a Race War,” two characters escape from galactic devastation on a spacecraft traveling at warp speed. Presumably, the successful getaway renders them giddy.
A comparable wave of relief rushes over you as you exit Ian Allen’s play, a primer on — and parody of — white-supremacist race-war fiction. Not only is the change of pace gratifying after a three-plus-hour production, it’s a mercy to leave behind the stew of bigotry, cruelty, paranoia and general demented ickiness that this world premiere is apparently spoofing but also necessarily presenting and maybe even implicating us in.
A nervy, timely, deliberately offensive, overlong piece of public-service playwriting produced by the Klunch, “How to Win a Race War” serves up three tongue-in-cheek potboilers about epic racial conflict — the aforementioned space fantasia, a tale of a slave rebellion in the antebellum South, and a thriller about a modern-day neo-Nazi militia. All three narratives satirically allude to or depict racism-fueled insults, oppression, torture, rape and killing. One of them imagines an attack with acid-filled supersize water guns.
Allen, the playwright and Klunch artistic director, stages what looks like a low-budget production, featuring mostly blunt or jokey performances by an all-male cast. Among the many distancing effects are pop-music interpolations and cursory costuming. For example, Connor Padilla wears a kerchief and a Miller Lite T-shirt in the antebellum playlet “Get the Guns!” to play Lilla, a quiet female slave owned by a rich Virginia widow, Evelyn (the bearded James Radack); before the story ends, Lilla sings a version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”
Just as incongruously, the song “You’ve Got a Friend” crops up during the “Star Wars”-style adventure “Rinse and Repeat!,” about a teacher (Darren Marquardt) and his son (Padilla), who join an Aryan rebellion against a society that oppresses white people. (Anderson Wells is the show’s music director and assistant director.)
The humor in “How to Win a Race War” can be disorienting and thought-provoking. Allen inflates certain racial and identity-related stereotypes like giant balloons, so as to more incisively lambaste the mind-set that traffics in such prejudice. For instance, the militia-themed playlet “Kill All Infidels!” depicts shrill, sex-crazed gay men-figures who fall victim to the schemes of the white-supremacist leader (Ned Read, the cast standout).
In the case of the amped-up stereotypes, we are glimpsing caricature through the lens of parody — a dizzying vista, which forces you to think hard about your laughter. Similarly, the cliffhanger storytelling makes this long show watchable — but periodically you squirm at the thought that you are enjoying the suspense too much. In the aftermath of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and white nationalists’ hailing of the Trump presidency, the Old South and white-supremacist-terrorism playlets are particularly unnerving.
Allen (“Laura Bush Killed a Guy”) has studied white-supremacist fiction. In a New York Times opinion piece this summer, he asserted that books such as “The Turner Diaries” provide essential insights on our era’s racist far right. If so, “How to Win a Race War” may help fill a valuable educational function. But I would far rather have seen a documentary that covered this material in objective fashion, with less deliberate comedy and more succinctness.
How to Win a Race War, written and directed by Ian Allen; set and lights, David C. Ghatan and William Spencer; props, Spencer; sound, Adrian Fontainebleau; costumes, Mei Chen; assistant costume, Dominic Hardy; video design, Christopher McKenzie; associate artistic director, Kate Debelack. With Brett Abelman, Grant Collins, Tony Greenberg, Matty Griffiths, Craig Houk, Will Low and Matthew Marcus. 3 hours, 20 minutes. Tickets: $25-$40. Through Oct. 20 at D.C. Arts Center, 2438 18th St NW. theklunch.com.