Now co-starring at the Studio Theatre: Edward Snowden, George Orwell, the National Security Agency and Cold War East Germany. Not literally, of course, but the shadows of snooping and whistleblowing are draped heavily across British playwright Sam Holcroft’s paranoid thriller “Edgar & Annabel.”
So is the ghost of the recent FX series “The Americans,” which focuses on a pair of Russian spies living and working undercover in early 1980s U.S. suburbia. Like that show, “Edgar & Annabel” uses politics to put enormous pressure on a domestic relationship that keeps trying to be sweet but that keeps getting sabotaged by eavesdroppers on both sides — the authorities and the resistance.
“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.