“Edgar” and “Annabel” are aliases for the couple that Holcroft situates in a suspiciously immaculate little kitchen/dining-room set, where the first thing you notice is the overkill of five smoke detectors/listening devices glowing on the ceiling. Edgar and Annabel — really named Nick and Marianne, we soon learn — work covertly against an unnamed authoritarian regime, though the familiar voice of National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep during news announcements puts a certain immediacy in the air.
The ground rules are established as soon as Nick enters with a cheery “I’m home!” and Marianne whirls on him with a kitchen knife. He calms her by brandishing a script, and they warily begin to read out loud the scenario prepared by their handlers.
So is this creepy or fun? Holcroft aims for both, especially during a long scene when Nick and Marianne are joined by another young couple for a whimsical night of karaoke and bombmaking. The idea is delicious, and as directed by Holly Twyford, the fake party hums with calculated frenzy.
It doesn’t quite register as gut-punching satire, though, so what’s best about the production — a venture of Studio’s non-Equity 2ndStage — is the edgy, energetic acting of Emily Kester and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Marianne and Nick. Kester is excellent at conveying Marianne’s grim commitment, while Ebrahimzadeh magnetically combines a casual facade with bottled fury.
Twyford, a well-known local actor and emerging director, confidently guides the cast through the double consciousness of play-acting for Big Brother as the characters try to, say, steal an intimate moment, or overthrow the government. She also masters Studio’s house style — it’s a cool, smart show. Debra Booth’s small rectangular set is like a trailer floating in an ominous void, and Kelsey Hunt’s flattering costumes are youthful and mod, with flashes of sex appeal.
This U.S. premiere is part of a mini-festival that Studio is billing “The New British Invasion,” with two more U.K. works to come this season by writers under 40. Holcroft’s 90-minute play is too politically abstract to be really satisfying, but she concocts a lot of imaginative business for her furtive dissidents, and the plot comes to a good sharp finish. As the festival promises, she’s a writer to watch.
“Edgar & Annabel,” by Sam Holcroft. Directed by Holly Twyford. Lights, Adrian Rooney; sound design, Palmer Hefferan. With Lisa Hodsoll, Lauren E. Banks, Jacob Yeh, Shravan Amin and Maggie Erwin. About 90 minutes. Tickets $15-$35. Through Jan. 5 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit studiotheatre.org.