The Web site for the National Hostage Training Center includes a photo of a man in khakis and dress shirt kneeling on the floor of a well-appointed conference room, hands pressed behind his neck. Before him is a long, skirted table lined with printed materials and a man in a ski mask wielding a pistol–a scene described in the caption as a “hostage situation re-enactment during a recent seminar.” For only $650 and a day of your time, the Spokane-based company will teach you how to maximize your chances of survival, minimize your potential for exploitation, and optimize your “post captivity adjustment” should you fall into the hands of terrorists.

In a few decades ads like this might seem as quaint as cold war duck-and-cover films. But now, with all the political power and corporate profits invested in convincing the American public that terrorists are lurking everywhere, you might want to color coordinate your outfit with the terror-alert level just so your patriotism won’t be questioned.

Playwright Brett Neveu takes a careful look at the world of unidentifiable and unquantifiable but ever-present menace in his new Weapon of Mass Impact, which revolves around three professional women who’ve been sent by their companies to a terrorism-preparedness program before going overseas. As in most Neveu plays, the dialogue in this one is indirect, even banal. Half the scenes are set in an upscale coffee shop, where the women meet in pairs to compare notes, as they’ve been instructed to do, on the suspicious-persons lists they’ve compiled while walking the streets. Mostly, though, they just get to know each other. Other, shorter scenes are set in a darkened room, where each woman in turn sits before two hooded, gun-toting interrogators who force her to confess to made-up crimes. When the drama is this submerged, skilled actors are required to tap into the undercurrent of contemporary anxiety and malaise, the subtext for everything the characters feel and do. And director Edward Sobel, staging his fourth Neveu play, has found performers who give urgency to nearly every moment of this satisfying Red Orchid world premiere.

Weapon of Mass Impact is the second play in Neveu’s trilogy about American jitters in the wake of 9/11. The first, Harmless, which opened at TimeLine last season, is about a writing professor and one of his students, an Iraq veteran, who may have confessed war crimes in a story he’s written. Harmless is Neveu’s most conventional script, basically a courtroom drama unfolding in the office of a college president. But with Weapon of Mass Impact he returns to a structure more typical for him, which on paper seems hardly a structure at all. Most of the play consists of the women sitting in the coffee shop engaged in idle chatter, the only “conflict” arising from the occasional insensitive remark that creates a socially awkward moment. But as Sobel’s spare, nearly motionless staging emphasizes, the women’s deliberate efforts to remain superficial barely mask the fears smothering them.

This terror doesn’t have anything to do with going overseas. In fact two of the women, Kate and Gina, have traveled extensively in other countries and come away with what they believe is a foolproof system for avoiding trouble: convince yourself that everything will be fine–that you’re made of “superstrong stuff,” as Kate says. Their conviction that self-confidence and self-reliance can conquer geopolitical turmoil may be comforting to Oprah fans, but as the women gradually reveal, the selves they rely on are held together with toothpaste and twine. Kate has seen the world through the tinted windows of a tour bus, where she’s been amazed that Mexican peasants (who speak “Mayan or Mexican or something”) do whatever tourists want. She imagines herself some sort of climate-controlled earth mother in touch with everyone around her, though she ignores any truly revealing remark from the other women. Gina, meanwhile, is a seething mass of resentment, perhaps because something’s wrong in her marriage, perhaps because her mother was brutally raped and murdered, perhaps because life has simply worn her to a stub. For Kate and Gina, brought compellingly to life by Kirsten Fitzgerald and Jennifer Engstrom, nothing is more fearful than having to look at oneself, which is precisely what the interrogation exercises threaten–and what sitting in a coffee shop with a stranger forces.

The third woman, Sylvia, is a blank slate by comparison: she does little but respond to the other women politely and predictably. But her very placidity makes her seem the most troubled of the three, especially in Mierka Girten’s understated, mesmerizing performance: her Sylvia is fixated on something so overwhelming it makes her physically shrink into her seat. As Sylvia sips coffee and chats, we learn little about her except that her father has recently died–and that when she was a child he made her pay for the family dog’s vet bill after it attacked her. She’d knocked the dog unconscious, but her wound had required 16 stitches. Thoughts of international terrorism seem way beyond her; when she finally takes her place in the interrogation room, she barely manages to play along with the pretense. But her methodical questioner, portrayed with icy charm by Tom McElroy, zeroes in on the secret she’s been harboring, and as he rips it from her she faces a horror more crushing than anything he could dish out.

The explosive, emotionally violent finale is made even more harrowing by the expertly orchestrated restraint of the earlier scenes. But it’s still clear that Sylvia’s greatest trauma, like that of the other women, is entirely personal. The worst they’ve suffered are a bad marriage, bad parenting, the death of a loved one. Everything in their lives, from their coffee to their deepest fears, is made possible by American privilege. They’re never asked to consider the decades of violence, exploitation, and neglect that might be motivating their hypothetical kidnappers–a resonant omission. The real weapon of mass impact, Neveu suggests, is American self-absorption.

Through 12/2: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 7 PM, Sun 11/18, 3 and 7 PM, A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells, 312-943-8722, $20-$25

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Michael Brosilow.