Skull crusher 

In his role as the raging Detective Nelson in Theatre Gael's Rat in the Skull, John Ammerman gets the whole Ben Kingsley-in-Sexy-Beast thing going on. Akin to Kingsley's scorching change of pace, Ammerman puts aside the classic-style acting we expect from him to give a seething, savagely verbal performance. When Detective Nelson takes the stage, you quickly silence your cell phone for fear that he'd decapitate you if it went off.

Detective Nelson is a Protestant member of Northern Ireland's police force, and the only people he despises as much as the British are the Catholic terrorists of Southern Ireland. Set in 1984, Rat in the Skull corners Nelson in the same room with one of each. He interrogates an IRA bomber (Tim Cordier) in a London holding cell, with a junior British police officer (Chris Moses) finding himself "the umpire between two sons of Paddy."

Coiled, seething and insolent in his very posture, Nelson serves as the primary mouthpiece for playwright Ron Hutchinson's heightened language. As Nelson tries to sweat a confession out of the prisoner and constantly needles the Englishman, Rat in the Skull can be repetitious, with Ammerman's fascinating performance at times sticking in the same furious key. The production leaves you wishing that the actor's castmates had been closer to his level. Moses' delivery has the right amount of sardonic understatement for a career-minded police officer, but he's simply too physically boyish for the role. Cordier doesn't convey the zeal of an unrepentant bomber, and tends to mug too much in his long, wordless stretches.

Rat in the Skull has relevance with the debate over means and ends with the current War on Terror, and early on we see photos of a badly beaten Cordier, so we know that his time with Nelson will end badly. But many of today's post-9-11 issues involve the West trying to comprehend alien cultures, and Rat in the Skull suggests the opposing forces in Ireland's "Troubles" know each other only too well.

Rat in the Skull plays through April 6 at the 14th Street Playhouse, 173 14th St., with performances Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m. and Sun. 5 p.m. $16-$22. 404-876-9762.


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