David and Jean are just friends, even though David (a Blair-like “new Labour” member of Parliament from a “safe” liberal district) and Jean (his blue-collar campaign manager) bicker like a married couple. In the U.S. premiere at the Olney Theatre Center, this is adorable primarily because Julia Coffey is dazzling as the fast-talking Jean, whose spirit gets crushed by party compromises as much as it does by any prospect of love.
All of director Leora Morris’s cast acts with “West Wing” energy on Daniel Ettinger’s small rotating set, a grubby office that becomes a sophisticated wall of video images (by Rasean Davonte Johnson) during transitions that sweep the story back several years at a time. Coffey is the center in a role that has Emma Thompson written all over it, razor-sharp and daft as a bubble, with a low but discernible undercurrent of sexiness that’s right where Graham’s wonky story needs it. The earnest, debonair M. Scott McLean does much the same as the other half of this fetching pair, playing David as a stylish yet sincere politician fencing about the fine points of strategy and constituent service.
Graham heaves his plot like a boomerang: the story starts in 2017, reaches 1990 by intermission and gradually swings back to last year. That much history takes nearly three hours and includes slow-moving betrayals and groaning jokes, so you had better be convinced ahead of time that this talky deep dive into the discontents of liberals is your cup of tea.
The persuasive actors include Tessa Klein as David’s upscale lawyer wife (who disappears for a long stretch of the play but gets a gasp when she comes back), Brian Kim as a Chinese investor who casts Labour’s priorities into sharp relief, Marcus Kyd as a hard-left local council member and Emily Kester as a woman who gets drawn into activism. Rewarding attention has been paid to the accents that pin Brits up and down the social scale.
Graham is a highflier in London circles now; “Labour of Love” won an Olivier Award as best new comedy earlier this year, and his Rupert Murdoch drama “Ink” comes to Broadway next spring. You can see why Graham’s approach succeeds: the frothy yet serious “Labour” is user-friendly, Morris’s staging keeps it snappy, and Coffey’s performance rises to every wry, elated or bitter challenge of her colorful, soul-of-the-party role.
Labour of Love by James Graham. Directed by Leora Morris. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Costumes, Sarah Cubbage; lights, Jesse Belsky; sound design, Sarah O’Halloran. Through Oct. 28 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. $64-$74. 301-924-3400 or olneytheatre.org.