No one can resist a good story -- a simple truth that implies, as a corollary, that no one will be able to resist "One Good Marriage,"a smashing two-character play that's receiving its U.S. premiere at MetroStage.
Canadian playwright Sean Reycraft's darkly comic yarn was a hit in Toronto, and no wonder: It's ingeniously written and extraordinarily suspenseful, with a plot twist along the lines of "The Crying Game." The piece, which clocks in at a mere 70 minutes, unfolds in a simple, presentational manner: a man and a woman standing on a stage, telling a story that's both realistic and chilling. To give too much away would be to cheat future audiences, but it's safe to reveal that the young couple, Stephanie and Stewart, have reached their first anniversary after experiencing serious marital trauma. The kind of trauma with a body count.
While teasing out the contours of the spouses' fate, Reycraft builds up a compelling portrait of a relationship. Stephanie and Stewart, who met while working as a high school English teacher and a librarian in a small Ontario town, speak with the rhythms of people who have grown co-dependent: They interrupt each other, finish each other's sentences, improve upon each other's choice of words. The narration is an ordeal for each of them, and they betray the frayed state of their nerves not only in their conversational crises but in the shellshocked way they dwell on domestic minutiae: the sound of a teakettle that's heating, the little flecks of coconut on the top of a brownie -- details that in other circumstances might be comforting but here acquire a creepy menace.
The script also harbors some shrewd insights into the way people think.
Knowing that distraction is an efficacious remedy for distress, Stewart has fine-tuned a technique for stanching his wife's bad spells by coaxing her to think of innocuous objects: "Think of a TV remote"; "think of an encyclopedia, but a slim one, like it's about everything that starts with zed"; "think of a soap dispenser -- the kind you find at a movie theater with the pink stuff showing through." As this ritual goes through permutations, it becomes almost poetic, its low-key, stylized quality and vivid imagery adding a satisfying counterpoint to the play's air of brooding disquiet.
None of this skillful writing would do any good, of course, without a capable cast. Fortunately, "One Good Marriage" has gotten itself hitched to two accomplished performers who are fully able to exploit the tension in Reycraft's scenario. Marcus Kyd, as the boyish, unassuming Stewart, and Toni Rae Brotons, as the slightly more neurotic Stephanie, have a confident stage presence and a mastery of timing that allow them to establish an ominous atmosphere as soon as they walk onstage, before a word has been spoken. As adeptly directed by John Vreeke, the actors keep the pace barreling along even when they are stretching out a pregnant pause, and their body language -- the way they stand next to each other, their occasional touch -- speaks volumes about their characters' past ordeal, which is never fully explained until the play's end.
Tracie Duncan's stark gymnasium set -- with its drooping "Anniversary" banner -- has a melancholy emptiness that underscores Stephanie and Stewart's terrible intimacy. It's an intimacy that proves hugely entertaining for an audience, as well as giving new meaning to the old maxim "Marriage is not a word; it's a sentence."
One Good Marriage by Sean Reycraft. Directed by John Vreeke. Lighting, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Kate Turner-Walker; sound, Matt Rowe. Through Nov. 21 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Call 703-548-9044.