Joviality and waggishness may not be traits you immediately associate with the Stalinist secret police. But then you probably haven’t met Vladimir, the NKVD operative in John Hodge’s play “Collaborators.” Arriving at the home of dramatist Mikhail Bulgakov, a somber-faced Vladimir announces that the writer is under arrest. There’s a pause; shock registers. Then Vladimir gleefully chortles, “Only joking!”
“I love that one. Always gets a reaction,” he goes on, proceeding to affably introduce himself to Bulgakov and his wife.
The grafting of humor, grimness and surprise is a key ploy of Hodge’s in this frustrating play, now on view in a visually stylish and mostly well-acted Spooky Action Theater production, billed as its Washington-area premiere. “Collaborators,” which won Britain’s Laurence Olivier Award for best new play in 2012, spins a semi-absurdist tale about Bulgakov negotiating personally with Stalin over the details of a play about the despot. Taking place amid the escalating Great Terror, the transaction inevitably threatens the writer’s integrity — and maybe his soul.
Hodge (a screenwriter whose credits include “Trainspotting”) has based the yarn on true events: In 1938, having long struggled with the political censorship that had wrecked his career, Bulgakov acceded to pressure and wrote a play about Stalin’s youth. Not long after that work, too, was scuttled, the author died, having barely completed the novel for which he is now best known, “The Master and Margarita,” which wasn’t published until the 1960s.
Directed by Spooky Action’s founding artistic director, Richard Henrich, “Collaborators” benefits from some persuasively colorful performances. G. Michael Harris is very funny as the jokey but menacing Vladimir, who orders Bulgakov to write the Stalin play, promising that, in return, the ban on Bulgakov’s play “Molière” — about another era’s censored writer — would be lifted.
Joe Duquette is even more entertaining as Stalin, who turns out to be a chatty, avuncular type delighted to talk theater. (In real life, Stalin was a huge fan of the stage adaptation of Bulgakov’s novel “The White Guard.”)
Paul Reisman effectively channels the harried and increasingly sick writer (Bulgakov suffered from nephrosclerosis), while MacKenzie Beyer supplies an affecting portrait of the writer’s wife, Yelena. Steve Beall generates some droll moments as a lascivious doctor, and Liz Dutton is splendidly ominous as a silent charwoman charged with cleaning up after executions.
Henrich’s staging suggests the strains and (justified) paranoia that haunt Hodge’s Bulgakov: The audience is seated on two sides of the rectangular stage, hemming the characters in. Giorgos Tsappas’s set design is elegantly spare, consisting largely of red Constructivist-style lines that angle along the floor and walls. (Brian S. Allard devised the atmospheric lighting, Alisa Mandel the telling costumes and Becky Mezzanotte the props.) The lean aesthetic allows for occasional fluid segues into scenes that evoke Bulgakov’s “Molière” (spooky looking, with robed figures in commedia masks) and the Stalin play (full of uproariously awful melodrama).
Such details set off the play’s humor and foreboding well enough. But after an absorbing opening, Hodge’s script takes a disappointingly simplistic tact, tracing a bleakly kooky hypothetical to its foreseeable extreme. An exploration of the kind of real conflict, compromise, ambivalence and anguish that the beleaguered Bulgakov presumably dealt with would have made for a more meaningful and satisfying play.
Spooky Action Theater at the Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St. NW. 202-248-0301. spookyaction.org.
Dates: Through March 6.