Through June 14
1201 North Royal St, Alexandria
With its deliciously taut production of “The Letters,” MetroStage brings a little Hitchcockian suspense to Old Town.
Set in Soviet Russia circa 1931, the two character play by John W. Lowell pits boss against underling in a tense game of cat and mouse. The trouble begins when Anna, a 40-ish editor employed at an unnamed government agency, is charged with redacting words from a great composer’s love letters to his boyfriends.
The state doesn’t want it known that one of Russia’s national treasures was gay. It’s soon discovered that someone from Anna’s department has been copying the scandalous letters in question, and the higher ups want to locate and destroy the missing copies and punish the parties involved.
When Anna (Susan Lynskey) is summoned to the big boss’ office, experience tells her that such an invitation can only end badly. During the prolonged meeting, her boss — known simply as the Director (Michael Russotto) — informs Anna that she’s being promoted to top editor. Anna is reluctant to accept her new position. And of course she’s right to be wary — there’s a catch. The Director wants information and he’s willing to do anything to get it.
What follows is a slow-building battle between the Director, a former cavalry officer whose jovial veneer covers a scary bully with an enormous chip on his shoulder, and a seemingly colorless functionary. But don’t let the mousy demeanor fool you. Beneath Anna’s gray cardigan beats a complex heart — sensitive, cynical and more than a little conflicted. And despite the power imbalance, she proves a formidable adversary. Still, widowed Ann must tread carefully. Her job is her only security and in her world, the gulag (or worse) looms as a possible outcome.
“The Letters” premiered in Los Angeles in 2009. Lowell drew inspiration from the real events surrounding letters penned by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (“The Nutcracker,” “Swan Lake”) whose sexually frank correspondences were destroyed by Russian officials. Most biographers contend that Tchaikovsky and his brother were both gay and that the composer counted his longtime valet and an adult nephew among his love interests. In Lowell’s play, the composer goes unnamed. And there is no detail regarding the passages that Anna and her colleagues are called upon to erase other than to say they’re unabashed expressions of the subject’s sexuality and are pornographic by the day’s standards.
MetroStage’s producing artistic director Carolyn Griffin has a knack for finding interesting plays that audiences aren’t likely to see elsewhere around town. “The Letters” is a fine example and under the perceptive staging of out director John Vreeke, the brisk, 75-minute work is short but satisfying. Vreeke helps to elicit terrific performances from his Russotto and Lynskey. The talented pair has worked together before. Their history includes MetroStage’s U.S. premiere production of “The Girl in the Goldfish Bowl.”
Placed at an angle with a huge open window suspended overhead, Giorgos Tsappas’ set suggests a generic boss’ office with the big desk and a pair of vinyl covered chairs — government-issue furniture befitting the department head. It’s sinister in its banality.
“The Letters” is drawn from a specific time and place, but could certainly take place anywhere today. It’s a timely piece, particularly when matters of overzealous and illegal surveillance and loss of personal freedoms are being debated here and now.