EVERY NOW AND THEN, A BAD OMEN smacks you before you even take your theater seat. The poster for Steve Barron's new play Escobar, displayed in the lobby at Theater Off Jackson, proudly features an esteemed quote from The Seattle Times, which trumpets, "Barron's scenarios are fitfully engaging." I'm sure I don't need to explain this to the average reader, but since it eluded the show's producer, let's acknowledge this: "Fitfully engaging" is an articulate way of saying, "Sometimes it's okay." Aside from the fact that Escobar is not even occasionally okay, I feel fairly confident that this is not a sentiment a producer would like an audience to carry into the theater. Alas, it is the first of many burdens.

The play begins with the duel of two dim American servicemen in Vietnam, and the narrated letter of an ex-soldier, Lawrence Baker, played by Victor Janusz. Janusz' narration is so off-the-mark bad and unclear in tone that you are quickly swept up by Bad Omen Number Two: Victor Janusz is also the director of the play. The two servicemen, the young Joseph Escobar (Jason Phillips) and the young Lawrence Baker (Carter Roy) shoot each other over the honor of someone named Juliana Linguine (don't ask about the pasta reference, because I don't know). We discover that ever since that duel and the resulting unmotivated friendship, the older Baker has been curiously seeking a reunion with the older Escobar (Ben DiGregorio), now a burned-out relic who spends his days getting high and acting paternal with Samantha (Diedre Kilgore), the troubled 18-year-old who lives nearby.

The playwright very self-consciously wants to deal with the haunting quality of memory and regret. He does so by having the past interact with the present, throwing in things like a red-lit tango between the young Escobar and Samantha that comes out of nowhere, and caused my date to turn to me in horror, mouthing a silent "Nooooo." Barron, trying to cover all the bases, takes his play on astonishingly awful tangents. Samantha suddenly reveals to the young Escobar, a total stranger, that she was molested (this begins with "Once upon a time, there was a princess..."). The older Escobar, back in Vietnam, rattles off a clichéd, hyperbolic memory so overheated it manages to make a child's death unintentionally funny. Later, in a moment so random I have no idea what anyone was thinking, the young Escobar informs Samantha that the older Escobar is dead, then launches into a heartfelt monologue about the pleasures of preparing international foods, with a special emphasis on the pride to be found in pinto beans.

DiGregorio's title performance has a calm confidence, and he's obviously committed, but it becomes painfully clear that he doesn't have the technique to modulate his performance, and so remains, without any visible directorial guidance, at the same frustratingly low key for the entire show. Janusz' only direction, in fact, has the actors inexplicably leaping up or throwing themselves on the ground. With the exception of Phillips (who is apparently convinced that he's in some feverishly brilliant tone poem and behaves like Rudolph Valentino, nostrils aflame), the players show no definitive signs of whether or not they know how trapped they are. They're all slouching toward some cherished cinematic rawness that the text, and for that matter, a stage production, can't begin to support. Everybody needs a swift kick: Hey, people, we're doing a play here!

The stage is poorly lit; the set is literally ragged; and the music design, with its ominous piano noodlings, sounds borrowed from Days of Our Lives. By the end of the evening, the most basic questions are left unanswered, scene by scene: Who are these people? What makes them do the things they do? Why are they choosing to tell each other anything? How unseemly is it for a theater critic to snot on himself while trying to hold in his inappropriate laughter?

Risk and experimentation are to be applauded in the arts, but Escobar, despite its wild textual and performance mannerisms, is tiresomely derivative of any number of post-war plays. The Ghost Soldier's Return is by now a hackneyed device, and there's no great innovation in Barron's time-jumping structure. Worse, he's obviously recently discovered Motif, turning the phrase "Tell me a story" into something akin to torture. His play is out of its own depth, referencing Shakespeare and Pushkin (again, don't ask), and Janusz and company haven't the slightest clue what to do with it. It takes courage to write and stage an original work, but a more infuriating nerve to charge $14 for a production with such an appalling lack of craft.

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