If you're in the market for a prickly comedy about the 2007-2008 financial crash, here's a tip: "She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange" is a deliciously vicious little helping of the melting economy, played by four actors on a picnic blanket during a Sunday in the park.
The play is by Amelia Roper, whose absurdist touches have a crisp wicked streak in director Kelsey Mesa's 90-minute show. So much of the action feels like small talk: It opens with Henry (Marcus Kyd) offering Amy (Jen Rabbitt Ring) some ice cream he just bought from a truck as they chat about what to do with the new house they — well, she, really — just bought. Could he maybe plant a garden?
Then another couple, Max and Sara, come by, acquaintances oddly well-dressed and toting bags as if they've just been shopping in high-end stores. They even have a floor lamp. Of course they join in.
The banter on the blanket gets competitive as we learn that Amy is a highflying investment banker and Max is a bitter rival (and former co-worker). Roper's lens slowly widens from subtle rivalries and blunt questions — "I'm sleeping with your wife," Henry says, only to agree when Max replies, "No, you're not" — to what Amy and Max actually do at work. Amy is clearly better at it than Max.
"It's difficult to know what's right," Max says, getting on a moral high horse.
"It's numbers, Max," Amy replies. "The bigger one's always right."
Roper's droll, dry dialogue is full of well-aimed darts that Mesa's actors toss with skill, whether slinging them hard or lobbing them gently. Kyd is sweetly blithe as Henry, belittled for his profession (he's a nurse). Ring is sweet, too, as Amy, but slightly more measured, not as loose. It's a promising relationship with a bit of an edge you can feel in the familiar rhythms and unsteady pauses Kyd and Ring bring to the couple's bright talk.
Tonya Beckman continues to prove she's one of the best comic performers in town, colorfully toggling between confidence and insecurity as Sara, an upscale housewife. As Max, Dan Crane is suitably awkward — Max is in a jacket and tie at the park, for Pete's sake — and increasingly indignant as he digs into Amy.
Funny as the performance is, you begin to think the script is drifting after an hour, but then comes the revelation that gives the story depth. It's rather brave of Mesa and the cast, and also shrewd, to perform in such ultra-close quarters. The show is by Taffety Punk Theatre Company, run by pros aiming to keep good theater affordable ($15), and their home base is the intimate Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. It's a small room, and Mesa shrinks it further by arranging this in the round. You sit no farther than two rows away. You could reach for the crackers and pate.
The controlled production includes Jen Gillette's pinpoint costumes — not-quite-casual yuppie wear for Henry and Amy, and convincing formality for Sara and Max. The fashion sense adds to the pleasure as this deft cast comically flutters and stings against Roper's backdrop of looming national calamity.
She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange, by Amelia Roper. Directed by Kelsey Mesa. Set design, Crista Noel Smith; lights, Chris Curtis; sound design, Marcus Kyd. Through Oct. 14 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th Street SE. Tickets $15. Call 202-355-9441 or visit taffetypunk.com.