The cooler of beer in the bland, budget motel room setting of Gregory S. Moss' "Reunion" hints at what's dramatically in store for us: another dark night of the drunken male soul.
It hardly qualifies as a spoiler to reveal that by the time the three buddies reuniting for their 25th high school reunion are ready to check out, no maid service in the world is going to be able to set the place to rights.
We've been down this Men Behaving Badly road before in plays by David Mamet, Jason Miller, Sam Shepard and Neil LaBute. Indeed, the first act of "Reunion" is so familiar that audiences might be forgiven for mistaking this South Coast Repertory world premiere for a revival of some testosterone-fueled off-Broadway work from the 1970s.
Moss reconstructs the genre only to deconstruct it. In the second act, the heavy metal music is turned up, the lights start flashing and the realism sputters into something more wild and aggressive.
If the play doesn't rise beyond the level of a genre exercise, however, it's mainly because the characters are at the mercy of Moss' playwriting update. Their behavior is more faithful to the stage than to life.
A late-occurring plot twist makes a comment on the pressures of masculinity in this working-class suburban Boston milieu, but the novelty is somewhat strained. For Moss to pull off what he intends, the psychology of this theatrical study would have to be more scrupulously observed.
The pulse of the production, directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, is set in motion by the talented cast. More than any surprising revelation Moss springs on us, it's the fierce conviction of the actors that gives this drama its life.
Kevin Berntson plays Peter, the most professionally successful of the trio but still the runty nerd desperate to be one of the guys. Michael Gladis plays Max, a recovering alcoholic who's not exactly sure why he's come back for this reunion. And Tim Cummings plays Mitch, the bullying braggart who has moved back in with his mother but still fancies himself a bad boy.
The location of this after-hours blowout has been carefully chosen by Mitch, who is late to arrive. This is the same exact room in which something fateful occurred decades ago after another hard partying night. History seems eager to repeat itself.
When Mitch shows up wearing a leather coat and a ruffled tuxedo shirt, a Mephistophelean whirlwind with his dogs barking menacingly from his car in the parking lot, it's clear that he's going to be the one who forces the others to confront long buried truths. He treats Peter like a flunky, belittling his smart phone and reliance on Facebook, and he tempts Max with whiskey.
Cummings' flamboyant turn is nicely complimented by the grounded naturalistic work of Berntson and Gladis. Together, they expose the lost adolescent boys still lurking inside these middle-aged men.
How you ultimately feel about Moss' story may depend on whether your adult statute-of-limitations clause permits a hearing on teenage incidents involving closest chums. Peers can leave scars, no doubt about that. But the only people I've ever met who are frozen in time over something a high school buddy did 25 years ago are from novels and plays.
Raucous and rowdy, "Reunion" continues artistic director Marc Masterson's commitment to shaking up South Coast Rep's reputation for producing smart, courteous plays. The galvanic charge is welcome, but this drama is ultimately more boisterous than momentous.
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 Saturdays-Sundays (call for exceptions). Ends March 30.
Contact: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes