“The Letters” is a drama of thought control in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and it’s a good one — a slick 75 minutes with a Hitchcock-like grip. There are just two characters in John W. Lowell’s play, the director of an unnamed institute and the whip-smart editor he has summoned for promotion. The offer of advancement chills her blood. No doubt the controlling director has something nefarious planned.
The cat-and-mouse tension is splendid in John Vreeke’s shadowy, airtight production at MetroStage, driven by the cagey performances of Michael Russotto and Susan Lynskey. Russotto is blustery and gregarious as the director. Pacing through Giorgos Tsappas’s nearly empty office set (which sits at a menacing angle on the stage), Russotto puts on an unnerving charm offensive that glints like sharpened steel. The director’s questions are slightly peculiar, and Russotto gently lobs his sadistic jokes with grenadelike precision. You don’t blame Anna, the editor, for looking alarmed.
Anna is quick-witted, and Lynskey’s performance is engagingly brisk. She talks fast and thinks swiftly as she tries to decipher what the director is up to. The situation is based loosely on letters written by the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (unnamed here), letters revealing he was gay.
“An aberration,” the director murmurs in moral disapproval, labeling homosexuality “a shame to the state.” Naturally, the letters of this musical genius must be purged of such references before they are released to the public. The play’s early going is all about the director’s machinations as he tries to loosen Anna up, get her to trust him.
Lowell has some juicy twists up his sleeve, and the dramatic stakes are raised as the action unfolds in real time as one unbroken scene. It is a cage match; only one of the combatants will get out.
Melodramatic? You bet, and it’s an angle Vreeke plays with understated flair from the moment Lynskey’s silhouette fills the frosted glass of the director’s office door — an image pilfered from vintage Warner Bros. pictures. (Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man” and “The Maltese Falcon” come to mind during this show.) Alexander Keen’s lights nimbly catch the two faces in harsh glare and mysterious darkness as the plot twists. For a show that is one long dialogue, it has a canny and ever-changing look.
The historical-censorship plot taps into our own anxiety about surveillance states, with Lowell probing the psychological effects of being perpetually monitored in the name of security. The actors don’t miss a nuance. Russotto, whose recent turn as the morbidly obese figure in “The Whale” at Rep Stage is already one of this year’s most memorable performances, plays the director as a terrifying tactician. Lynskey’s Anna hangs on his every word, her eyes darting as she tabulates options and coolly staring him down whenever she gets the upper hand. It all adds up to a nifty suspense.
By John W. Lowell. Directed by John Vreeke. Costumes, Ivania Stack; sound design, Aaron Fensterheim. About 75 minutes. Through June 14 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Tickets $50-$55. Call 703-548-9044 or visit www.boxofficetickets.com.