A battle-scarred veteran comes home from Afghanistan to find that he has zilch in marketable skills in "Dead Metaphor." Indeed, the job market turns out to be as bloody as any combat mission in George F. Walker's pitch-black farce, now in its world premiere at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater.
The Canadian playwright ("Escape from Happiness," "Suburban Motel") hit upon on the idea for the play because his nephew was sent off to war and worried he might have a hard time adjusting to society after his tour of duty.
In "Dead Metaphor," the playwright pushes that anxiety to extremes in a lively dark comedy that takes no prisoners. He takes aim at corrupt politicians, hypocritical religious leaders
Coming home certainly isn't all it's cracked up to be for Dean (George Hampe), a naive fellow with rumpled hair and omnipresent earbuds. He's not even savvy enough to know that no one will hire him if he's honest about having been a sniper against the Taliban. He served his country well, but no one else understands that his high kill ratio is a mark of his efficiency. Unemployable, he can't support his wife Jenny (Rebekah Brockman) and his unborn child, so he has to move in with his aging parents.
Hank's profane bits of wisdom really heat up when Dean finally lands a job as an assistant to supremely smug right-wing honcho Helen Denny (a wonderfully wry Rene Augesen). Denny has no beliefs, merely talking points calibrated to dupe a gullible public. She can't quite decide if she despises her daughter more for being an environmental activist or for being a lesbian. And she considers her hapless husband Oliver (Anthony Fusco) a communist because he works in social services.
It's in Helen's employ that Dean realizes all those years as a sharpshooter might just come in handy after all.
The concept of the hired gun gets taken way past the point of believability here, but there's a method to the madness. The absurdness of the plot reflects the vagaries of life, its ironies and its mercies.
The vicious jabs between Helen and Oliver have an elegant acidity. The punch lines about illness and death will resonate with anyone who has seen either up close.
One of the funniest lines is a joke about Alzheimer's and cancer told by a dying man whose fondest wish involves euthanasia.
This is humor born out of the bleakest circumstance in a world teetering toward oblivion. It's not for the easily offended, but its naughtiness makes it all the funnier. Walker times his punch lines so perfectly, it's hard to catch your breath.
Hampe proves himself a master of the deadpan. His wide-eyed Dean plays off well against Augesen's caustic Helen and Fusco's dithering Oliver. While the plot is extremely far-fetched, the characters all seem believable and true, real people caught in the crosshairs of life.
Make no mistake, there are a few static patches in "Dead Metaphor," although Lewis' taut pacing and Christopher Barreca's slyly spinning set keep eyes and ears entertained.
Walker needs to hone the ending, so that the ambiguity is more emotionally raw, and the script needs tightening, so that Dean's spiral into chaos feels more inexorable. The playwright also overstates his points a little, but there's no denying that "Dead Metaphor" hits a bull's-eye when it comes to the funny bone.
By George F. Walker
Through: March 24
415 Geary St., San Francisco
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $20-$95 (subject to change), 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org