‘Edgar & Annabel’
Through Jan. 5
1501 14th Street, N.W.
Sure, lots of theater remains relevant over time, but typically a play doesn’t become increasingly topical in the years following its publication. Yet, that’s exactly what’s happened with young British dramatist Sam Holcroft’s “Edgar & Annabel.”
When her Orwellian comedy thriller premiered in London in 2011, the Edward Snowden N.S.A. leak hadn’t happened and western audiences felt removed from the notion of an oppressive government monitoring their every move. But today, for Studio 2ndStage’s post-Snowden audiences, it’s more relatable.
Holcroft imagines a contemporary-looking America where government surveillance is the norm. Big Brother is always listening and things are getting worse. People can be thrown into jail for telling an anti-government joke. Elections are approaching and the ruling party is predicted to win handily. Stakes are high. The minority, freedom-seeking opposition desperately needs to make some gains.
The plot turns on the relationship of young rebel operatives Marianne (the excellent Emily Kester) and Nick (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) who stay under the radar disguised as conservative married professionals Edgar and Annabel. Like everywhere, the house where they live is bugged and what’s said is analyzed by a government computer. To maintain innocuous continuity, every afternoon Marianne and Nick are supplied a new script from Miller (Lisa Hodsoll), their cool-but-zealous handler. So evening after evening, they speak their banal domestic dialogue dutifully while anxiously awaiting orders from organization higher-ups on when to assemble the bombs whose makings are stashed beneath the floor boards of their white IKEA kitchen.
Acclaimed local actor Holly Twyford (who is gay) is new to directing, but you wouldn’t know it here. She has staged the production (a U.S. premiere) with a sure hand. At 95 minutes, the well-acted piece moves briskly without losing any of the comic bits or the more disturbing aspects of the play. The design team is assured too, from Debra Booth’s purposefully plain set to costume designer Kelsey Hunt’s pretty dresses and beige pumps for Annabel.
Living under constant aural surveillance can prove tricky, but the operatives learn ways around it. When assembling explosives, they use what’s available to drown out suspicious noises — an electric carving knife and the hand held vacuum work nicely. But for a really big job, it’s home karaoke. Most memorably, the couple engages is an evening of karaoke and bomb building with guests and fellow operatives Tara and Marc (Lauren E. Banks and Jacob Yeh). This longish scene is a tour de force of blocking (kudos Ms. Twyford) and concentration on the part of the talented and diverse cast.
What’s more, it’s during a karaoke duet (“Total Eclipse of the Heart”) that Marianne and Nick’s relationship noticeably begins to shift. I’ll stop there. No spoilers.
Holcroft’s play is about acting too. Because the protagonists must do a cold script reading every evening, there’s lots of opportunity for frustration and humor as they perform for the overhead government bugs hidden in the smoke detectors. Characters can be replaced without warning. Going off script is taboo. Sometimes props aren’t available — in one instance, their script calls for wine but they’re out, prompting Ebrahimzadeh’s Nick to impressively mimic the uncorking the bottle and pouring of its contents.
“Edgar & Annabel” kicks off Studio 2ndStage’s “British Invasion,” a showcase of notable plays by British playwrights under 40. Upcoming entrees include “Tribes” by Nina Rains and Mike Bartlett’s “Cock,” intriguing-sounding works to look forward to in the new year.