Outrage, disgust, disbelief: These were among the visceral responses of the civilized world to the hideous photographs from Abu Ghraib prison that hit front pages in the spring of 2004. But for the breathtakingly cynical Fleet Street hack portrayed in Peter Morris' play "Guardians," those images of U.S. military and intelligence personnel abusing Iraqi prisoners inspire envy. "All this might be fun to try," says the jaded journalist.
This pin-striped piranha, played with fearless and penetrating range by the extraordinary Lee Pace, is not the only one with an unseemly relish for degradation. The other half of Morris' pitch-black meditation on sexual violence is a thinly veiled version of Lynndie England, the fresh-faced Army private who became the poster girl of the Abu Ghraib scandal. She is played here by Katherine Moennig (best known as the butch lesbian Shane on Showtime's "The L Word").
Though director Jason Moore's production is taut and unflinching, Pace's reptilian rotter - a fictional character - resonates more than Moennig's cowed take on the real-life abuser. This is partly a case of the playwright mastering an English voice with more acuity than he does an American one. The journalist is a compulsive and absorbing wordsmith, who walks us through Boschian depths of depravity with limpid and lacerating wit.
The West Virginian army flunkie, by contrast, describes her own abasement with the aid of moonshine metaphors and fake-folksy charm. Moennig's tentative performance doesn't help. She sulks and smokes sullenly but doesn't live the role so much as she tries it on, along with her ill-fitting, regulation-orange jumpsuit.
It's also a case of what you might call the Monologue Quandary: An audience needs to feel that characters have a compelling reason to stand up and speak to us, other than that the playwright thought so.
Pace makes us believers from the start, his athletic frame lunging across Richard Hoover's severe, angular set as if he were giving a twisted career-day presentation. He acidly recalls his pleasure nosing for dirt about footballers' wives and other minor celebrities. When the Abu Ghraib photos hit the wire, he immediately recognizes them as the real thing, not tabloid ephemera: He smells a career opportunity.
In her own dark detour as a prison guard in Iraq, Moennig's character recognizes only a bleak respite from boredom, as she follows her lover, the demented Specialist Charles Graner, into a spiral of sexual decadence. The playwright wants us to see their sadomasochistic relationship as a microcosm of geopolitics: The powerful assault the weak, and the weak must learn to "lie back and enjoy it."
This relentless personalization of the conflict ultimately dulls Morris' anti-war critique. How do you trace these atrocities up a chain of command when the chains come from your own collection?
GUARDIANS. Written by Peter Morris. Directed by Jason Moore. Through May 25 at the Culture Project, 45 Bleecker St., Manhattan. Tickets $46. Call 212-307-4100. Seen Saturday.