There are several things that denote a mediocre production within its first few scenes — a missed cue, a monotonal voice or an actor’s sudden fall into the front row. I’ve noticed another lately: the phrase “I’m going to Iraq.”

The first few scenes of “Prayer for My Enemy,” the Longwharf Theater’s fall opener, are rapid, clean bits of bright and edgy comedy. Yes, the scenario is cliched: Two men meet at a gas station, start fighting (profanity flies like bullets), realize they are old high school friends (profanity flies again), go to a bar, etc. But that simplicity — even predictability — is central to the play’s initial appeal. The dialogue hints at psychological distortion, suppressed homosexuality and general emotional torment, but does nothing more than unzip the characters’ emotional baggage; we know it’s there, but the two men don’t ungracefully dump their frustration all over the stage floor. The gritty humor thrives in this sincere, unpretentious atmosphere.

But as the play increases in complexity, it loses sincerity, which may be blamed on the entrance of Marianne (Katie Rose Clarke) who is very good with angry and self-righteous moods, but little else. Further, the play begins to dabble in “philosophy,” if that’s the word for irrelevant and shallow references to infinity and time that would be embarrassing in a teen romance flick. In one painful scene Tad Voelkl (James McMenamin) and Clark wax philosophic about the finiteness of human life compared to the infinity of time.

Though the main action in the play degenerates into a shallow tedium, the play’s best actor — Julie Boyd, who portrays an eternally smiling Delores Endler — retains our attention. Her portion of the play is a simple monologue describing her oppressive fiance, her hospitalized mother and her bitter frustration with New York city. She progresses from timid acceptance of her undesirable circumstances to resentment and, finally, rebellion. While the play’s climactic moment hits a strained, false, emotional note in the presence of the other characters, its relation to Boyd is vivid, pulsing and powerful. It is likely that the play, as a whole, would have been more poignant and sincere if playwright Craig Lucas had pared the script down to Boyd’s frantic and comic soliloquies.

But few American playwrights can resist the temptation to create in their characters the neurotic, shuddering victims of every problem facing America today. Billy Noone (Daniel Zaitchik) is an army recruit struggling with his father’s combination of alcoholism and distorted Christianity, as well as with his own sense of emasculation and confused sexual identity. In other words, if something in the world makes you angry, you will (or, at least, you are expected to) empathize with Billy — but only weakly. Though he is an amalgam of all things inflammatory, Billy represents no single thing well. The script develops not one idea to any satisfying level of coherency. It seems as if Lucas is so terrified of alienating even one audience member that he sacrifices subtlety, artistry and believability for the sake of mass appeal. His method carries the unpleasant stink of unpolished writing and thinly veiled profit grubbing.

“Prayer” is not a terrible play, but it is not a satisfying play. It’s the sort of theater that takes dramatic art, gilds it and sucks out the substance. It follows recent trends by batting around contemporary, incendiary ideas (like the war in Iraq) without giving them sufficient thought.