Advice to the founders of latter-day utopias: Plan carefully when you build your koi pond.
In “Pol Pot & Associates, LLP,” Kathleen Akerley’s interesting, idiosyncratic whodunit-of-ideas, on view in an engagingly acted world premiere production from Longacre Lea, an eccentric modern commune embarks on some upgrades to its property. That’s understandable: A collective founded by six former employees at a blue-chip law firm can afford a few shelter-magazine indulgences. But when a trespasser accidentally injures herself in an excavated area, and a murder shocks the neighborhood soon afterward, the developments threaten the commune’s viability and soul.
Such is the basic story explored in “Pol Pot,” which brings Longacre Lea back to the boards after a one-season hiatus. But dramatist Akerley, who also directed the show (and is the artistic director of Longacre Lea, which typically mounts one production a year), is as interested in intellectual musings as she is in nitty-gritty plot points. Recounting the weird mystery that gradually envelops the commune, founded by high-powered legal dropouts who go by the names Frog (Michael Glenn), Hector (Michael John Casey) and Raven (Chris Davenport), the play asks some brainy questions. Are status and social hierarchies just matters of perception? Are unconventional communities inherently susceptible to rupture? And is it possible to believe in — let alone implement — an idealistic egalitarian system in this day and age, after history has seen so many grand social engineering projects go horribly awry?
As you might guess from this synopsis, the dialogue in “Pol Pot” can occasionally get a little wonkily abstract. (Frog has a long speech on how viewpoint affects conceptual groupings, for instance.) Fortunately, the performances are artful and confident enough to give the tale some grounding in character. The different personalities of the commune’s six members come into focus as the men banter their way their way through organizational meetings in their slightly ramshackle living room. (With its mismatched modern chairs and spooky-forest trees, Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden’s set has the right enigmatic air, while the dangling window frames underscore the theme of perception.) The characters become more distinct as the men match wits with the shifty, bullying detective (Jonathon Church), who is working the murder case and coping with such bizarre clues as a mysteriously mobile corpse and a dead bird left in a dumbwaiter.
With their air of still-waters-run-deep authority, Davenport’s Raven and Casey’s Hector are hugely watchable, and Glenn provides welcome comedy as the slightly obnoxious Frog. Daniel Corey deftly plays up the neurotic cautiousness of Todd, a paralegal-turned-acupuncturist, and Daniel Vito Siefring gives the right brooding mischievousness to Mal, the commune’s loose cannon, who discovers a strange link between Frog and Pol Pot. Seamus Miller is suitably subdued as Fiver, a vulnerable office grunt-turned-fortuneteller who contributes key vocal talent whenever the commune members sing their signature anthem, which is — go figure — Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair/Canticle.”
The song choice is an endearingly oddball detail. Some of the play’s other twists and minutiae are less satisfying: A few hints that the characters are dealing with a supernatural dimension, or at least a mind-blowing sinister conspiracy, give the play a frustrating sense of red-herring diffuseness, for instance.
Oddly, for a play that dabbles in absurdism and is so concerned with ideas, “Pol Pot” is most powerful when most naturalistic. The script sometimes flashes back in time to show the commune members planning and launching their collective (scoping out properties, proposing and nixing ideas for additional recruits). Stocked with rich character dynamics, the scenes are funny, poignant portraits of friendship, empathy and hope.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Written and directed by Kathleen Akerley. Assistant director, Slice Hicks; dramaturgy, Annalisa Dias; costume design, Gail Stewart Beach; sound, Neil McFadden; lighting, John Burkland. With Kira Burri. Through Aug. 31 at Catholic University’s Callan Theatre, 3801 Harewood Rd. NE. $12-18. Call 202-460-2188 or visit www.longacrelea.org. About 2 1 / 2 hours.