Blasted at the Mosser Hotel

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The play's the thing, a sage English playwright once wrote. With due respect to Sarah Kane's brutal, ambiguous text, and the brave cast of Blasted, the major reasons to check out the British theatre troupe 19:29's production at the Hotel Mosser are the location and environment.

The weirdness begins in the lobby, where the eight theatergoers privy to each performance are outfitted with black hoods cut out with eye and mouth holes. From the moment we boarded the elevator I dug being semi-anonymous, even during a steamy Thursday matinee, though I never quite grasped the point. Perhaps the hoods encourage the audience's voyeuristic impulse, increasing our comfort level with a parade of (simulated) wankery, shagging, fellatio and buggery. Or maybe our masks were for the actors' benefit, allowing them a hairsbreadth of distance during a 90-minute piece that unfolds in incredible (and occasionally fleeting comic) proximity in a cramped, two-room suite.

We shuffled awkwardly around the suite, noting the double bed in one room and the gin and couch in the other, until Ian and Cate entered. We deduced they were the actors, for they weren't wearing hoods. He's a boozing, prematurely gray journalist; she's a young blonde waif who, we learn, was once his girlfriend. Blasted quickly shapes up as a tense, claustrophobic but familiar power play, with Cate fending off the husky Ian's sexual advances. To add even more menace and mystery, Ian displays his gun, which he carries to fend off some threat lurking in the streets below, or perhaps to end his own nihilistic existence in this nondescript hotel room.

There are obvious advantages to having the audience precede the actors into the suite, but there's one major negative: It felt as if they had to stake out and claim the space from us. Had the actors already been in the room and in mid-conversation when we arrived, our discomfort at invading their privacy -- and, eventually, witnessing their extreme vulnerability -- would have been heightened.

Heightened, however, to a point that might well have been intolerable. Directors Felix Mortimer and Susanna Davies-Crook have settled on an awkward middle ground that bows to American mainstream sensibilities and protects the actors, but undercuts the premise of both the play and its hyper-intimate staging. While I have no great need to observe strangers five or seven feet away performing sexual acts -- call me a pervert -- it rings false to simulate such acts with the audience looking over the actors' shoulders. You can't go halfway without risking looking ridiculous, and losing your grip on the paying customers

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That said, Stephanie Jane de Whalley (who I gather to be the only British member of the cast, and a veteran of 19:29's Leeds production), and American thespians Thomas Landry (Ian) and Charles Lewis III (a soldier who barges in at the midpoint and rejiggers the power relationship to Ian's profound sorrow), deserve a ton of credit for their courageous participation. Plenty of actors would decline to ply their craft without the unquantifiable benefits of makeup, flattering lighting, convincing sound design, an elevated stage and a safety zone.

De Whalley's is the standout performance, largely because she elevates Cate beyond a sweet but helpless cliché into the only character in the play whose fate we invest in. She has that delicious talent of letting every emotion scurry across her face, appearing simultaneously shy and open. Landry doesn't create a character so much as embody an attitude; his gruffness could stand some modulating gentleness to allow us to see what Cate once and still admires in Ian. Lewis is equally unafraid to be crude and unlikable, but he comes off as more of a symbol than a three-dimensional human being.

Kudos all around, though, to my fellow audience members, who understood quicker than I that we were part of the performance. At first, we'd all bustle out of the way like tourists or roaches to accommodate an actor's path or movement, and to seek a better vantage point. But as Ian and Cate willfully ricocheted between the two rooms, we gradually gave up any pretense of being invisible and became blatant in our repositioning. (I daresay some of Mortimer and Davies-Crook's direction is deviously intended to increase the audience's activity, rather than to serve the action of the play). I all but laughed out loud when one theatergoer plopped on the side of the bed (taking care not to sit on a wet spot), shamelessly and splendidly erasing the division between the actors' space and the audience's.

I've barely said a word about the content and themes of Blasted, in part because they're regrettably expressed without a great deal of power. The play unfolds during wartime, when the most heinous acts are necessary for survival. The original 1995 London production scandalously broached all sorts of taboos, provoking a blazing controversy among critics and audiences. In this staging, many awful things are described by the soldier, and several horrible bits are omitted.

A caller on the room phone, once the audience is gathered and before Cate and Ian enter, cautions theatergoers who suffer from epilepsy or are uncomfortable with violence. Given the hoods and the diminutive suite, a warning might also be offered to those who suffer from claustrophobia. For everyone else, especially those of an adventurous or experimental bent, the reactions and emotions provoked by this one-of-a kind staging are well worth it.

19:29's production of Blasted runs through June 29, 2008 at the Mosser Hotel, 54 Fourth St. (at Market). For tickets and information visit nineteentwentynine.co.uk