Dark Rapture explores language without involving us dramatically; Slavs! eavesdrops on a nation involved in a deeply searching dialogue

As the curtain rises on Eric Overmeyer's Dark Rapture -- directed by David Petrarca as American Conservatory Theater's second Geary homecoming production -- the lights (by Peter Maradudin) dimly, almost reluctantly, reveal a bare film-noirish set (by Adrianne Lobel). Front and center is a small, plain wooden desk with a typewriter and a bottle of whiskey. Ray (Richard Snyder) emerges from the upstage shadows, sits at the desk, and begins to type, pausing only to swig from the bottle. His words -- screen directions for a film script -- appear above the stage as supertitles while sounds of the fire that rages outside -- or is it raging in his imagination? -- provide punctuation.

During the course of the play, Ray writes the story he is living: He takes an opportunity to disappear and revises his future when his house (presumably with him inside) is consumed in the East Bay firestorm. He also learns of his wife's adultery and betrays her in return; he swindles some clownish thugs out of millions of dollars; and ultimately he traps himself in a new life even more confining than the old.

That's the scenario Overmeyer is using to explore the nature of genre and language codes. (He has described this 1992 play as "the theatrical equivalent of the modern crime novel, particularly those by Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard.") While Petrarca's production is slick, energetic, and undeniably entertaining, as drama it fails to transcend its self-described limits and, as a result, fails to reveal much about its intended subject: the possibilities and pitfalls of self-reinvention.

The play is full of colorful yet generic characters who move the B-movie plot along at a goodly pace. The firestorm moves closer, and Ray grabs the bottle and runs outside to watch. As played by Snyder, he is the quintessential ordinary guy; the colorless observer whom everyone underestimates; the bland husband who yearns to be a lady-killer. Ray is joined by a stranger who introduces himself as Babcock (given a wonderfully sinister edge by Shawn Elliott). Together they marvel at the fire and reminisce about other cataclysms: hurricanes, volcanoes, the mutually experienced dark days of the Vietnam War, and night flights over Cambodia where "you never know what's out there in the dark rapture." Babcock suggests Ray return to his house and salvage a few mementos and valuables. Ray runs off, and Babcock watches as he disappears into the flames and apparently goes to his death.

The scene cuts swiftly to the white heat of Cabo San Lucas, where Ray's wife, Julia (Deirdre Lovejoy), a generic would-be movie producer/sex goddess, is enjoying an adulterous interlude with Danny (Mark Feuerstein), a generic Hollywood stuntman. Blissfully unaware of what is happening back home in Oakland, she swills tequila and celebrates sex, booze, and heat.

Returning to the site of the fire, we find a pair of Mafia types -- Lexington (Matt DeCaro) and Vegas (Rod Gnapp) -- who recall Shakespeare's generic oafish clowns (except even when Shakespeare was writing such characters he particularized them, something Overmeyer hasn't quite mastered). They speculate on the possibility that Ray might have survived the inferno and seized his unique opportunity -- as well as their money. They begin their search.

Then we're in Seattle, "the city where the sun don't shine," and Ray surfaces to enjoy a latte and muse about his future. He meets Renee (Jossara Jinaro), a tourist from Tampa with Cuban connections. Eventually he wanders to Key West where he falls in with Max -- "That's my name, don't wear it out" -- his sexy soul mate (played with deliciously provocative verve by Zachary Barton).

From this glitzy and provocative beginning, the play unfolds its plot. Subthemes of ancient racial turmoil -- in this case, it's Armenians vs. Turks -- are woven in along with Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories. Scenes are strung together with riffs of rough jazz (music by Rob Milburn), and suspense is not so much built as it is sketched. Out of curiosity we want to know how it all turns out. But curiosity is the limit of our involvement. We care nothing for any of the characters who never develop beyond easily identifiable types.

This, it seems, is intentional. Overmeyer is entranced by the forms and codes associated with detective fiction, and he wants to draw our attention to same. Much has been made in pre-production publicity of the playwright's interest in language, but Dark Rapture isn't really about language. It's about diction, as in what constitutes the choice or use of words. The items onstage at curtain's rise -- the desk, the whiskey, the typewriter, and the slightly drunk man -- are all code for "writer." We understand at once what we are seeing. The adulterous wife, the hotel room, the boyfriend with nothing to recommend him but a good body and stamina are also code. As are the mobsters, the hustlers, and the other fringe types.

Everything -- but everything -- is familiar: Ray, Julia, Babcock, Max, and everyone else in Dark Rapture could easily be relocated to any number of familiar books, movies, and plays. I found myself being bombarded by reminders of Body Heat and The Grifters, to name two, as well as classics like The Big Sleep and other novels. (I was even reminded of a film-noirish Broadway musical of several years back called City of Angels, which actually featured Shawn Elliott.) All these millions provide the tweak of pleasure that comes with recognition. But when everything onstage is so neatly and easily encoded, there isn't much in the way of real suspense or drama. What we experience is entertaining but hardly rapturous.

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