LOWELL -- David Mamet makes it look so easy, doesn't he? Just pick a seemingly ordinary workplace, take a closer look at the underlying dog-eat-dog ethos, and sit back and watch the fur fly. But capturing the banality of evil is not so simple a feat, as actor-turned-playwright John Corwin proves with ''Real Hush-Hush," receiving its world premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.
Merrimack is to be commended for seeking out and promoting new work. If only the script lived up to its title. You'd have to be hiding in a cave in Afghanistan not to catch on pretty quickly that this office setting (designer Bill Clarke captures all too well the soul-deadening blandness of a generic break room) isn't in a run-of-the-mill multinational but an analogue for Homeland Security headquarters, or some such Orwellian agency. So where do we go from there?
Three types -- who, despite the best efforts of perfectly competent actors, never achieve full character status -- hang around jawing. With his broken nose, hulking stance, and sloppy diction, Larry (Christian Kohn) represents proletarian muscle. Wilson (Sean Patrick Reilly) stands in for the middle class: he's a weaselly would-be corporate ladder-climber. Shaw (Dennis Creaghan) is what passes for a patrician in these parts: An old hand, he's the putative boss, though all three defer, enviously, to unseen figures ''upstairs."
Into their midst wanders one Anna Quinn (Caitlin Muelder), appearing at first like an errant temp. She's so bashful she can scarcely utter her own name. Is she a conscientious citizen, as she contends, come willingly to fulfill some unnamed civic duty? Or is she, as her interrogators insist, some kind of arch-terrorist? Muelder at least gets to execute some personality switcheroos in Act 2, while the men are stuck in a rut of thin writing.
Someone is nearly killed. Others are slated to die because these petty functionaries have license to ''disappear" anyone suspected of ''dangerous ideas."
Scared yet? If so, perhaps you haven't been following the news. Harold Pinter, whom Corwin also obviously emulates, can muster more menace from a cheese sandwich than this author achieves with his overwrought allusions to subterranean prisons and broad-daylight abductions and executions.
Mamet manages to wrest a brutal poetry from workaday jargon; Corwin mines the same lode and comes up with buckets of cliches.
Clearly, plays that intelligently examine the erosion of our rights to privacy and freedom of expression deserve to be written and produced. This attempt is so superficial, tedious, and derivative, however, as to suggest that a judicious degree of self-suppression might not be such a bad idea.