CHELSEA — In Ethan Lipton’s “Luther,’’ now at Apollinaire Theatre Company, cleverness vies with cliché. It ends up in a tie.
There’s an of-the-moment immediacy to Lipton’s grim satire, which aims to calibrate the toll war takes on the soldiers who fight it while dramatizing the sense of dislocation they can feel when returning to civilian life.
But in pursuit of that goal, the playwright relies on a shopworn stereotype: the military veteran as walking time bomb, always one word, gesture, or misunderstanding away from exploding into violence.
This was already a tired notion in 1978, when Bruce Dern played an on-the-edge Vietnam vet in “Coming Home,’’ and time has not freshened its appeal. In “Luther,’’ whose title character spells out his combustibility in a speech, it feels like a shortcut; it drains rather than adds to the play’s force.
Lipton’s overall structural conceit, however, is a creative one, and there is often a punchy wit to his writing. In the world of “Luther,’’ directed at Apollinaire by Danielle Fauteux Jacques, an unusual program allows families to adopt returning combat veterans, becoming, in effect, their new parents.
Luther (Matthew Milo Sergi), who spent six years in the Army and is now in his mid-20s, has been taken in by Marjorie (Jacques) and Walter (Ronald Lacey), a well-meaning couple in their 40s. The script does not specify which war Luther fought in, but it appears to have been Iraq, judging by his reference to a palace he and other soldiers stayed in.
Before signing the adoption papers, the couple had been given a yellow piece of paper that contained a profile of Luther, listing “all the things that have happened to him, and everything he’s ever done,’’ Marjorie says. They chose not to read it, though they’ve held on to it.
Their lives are constrained by money worries, and set designer Shelley Barish has reflected that in a home with a hemmed-in quality: gloomy windows, blinds drawn. When we first see Luther, he is splayed across a Creamsicle-colored couch, sleeping. But it’s not a peaceful slumber. He periodically twitches and stiffens while Marjorie and Walter testily discuss two fraught issues: whether Luther is stable enough to join them that night at a party Walter’s company is hosting, and who will care for him while they are away on a much-needed vacation.
Lacey and Jacques are persuasive as a fundamentally loving duo whose bond is fraying as they cope with a midlife immersion in an exceptionally challenging brand of parenthood.
In Sergi’s fine portrayal, Luther is a childlike figure, projecting an air of innocence, curiosity, and bewilderment at the ways of the adult world that is at time reminiscent of James Stewart’s Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey.’’ But he also demonstrates unsettling signs of volatility. His movements are jerky, as if he’s trying to relearn how to be human. Luther is extremely protective of Marjorie, on whom he seems to have a crush, while his attitude toward Walter veers into open rebellion.
Marjorie and Walter do indeed take Luther to the party. Underscoring the sense that the ex-soldier is moving through a world that is not real to him, a couple of the vapidly chattering guests are played by puppets (voiced by Anna Waldron). The level of conversation is not much better when Marjorie chats with the nebbishy Morris (Chris LaVoie), whose idea of snappy small talk is describing his bout with shingles. A few drinks later, though, Marjorie is dancing with him and generally cutting loose.
Matters quickly escalate, and predictably so. The play works best when Lipton wields his satiric scalpel more surgically, as in a scene between the vet and a gushing, gung-ho caterer named Tom (Woody Gaul). To Luther’s growing discomfort, Tom extols him as “a man of action at sea in an ocean of cowards’’ who has “literally made the world a better place,’’ then eagerly demands to know how many of the enemy Luther killed.
At moments like that, “Luther’’ makes you ask who is more detached from reality: the psychologically maimed soldier or the civilians who find war a cause for celebration.