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Theater Review: “Edgar & Annabel” at Studio Theatre

Holly Twyford directs this quirky play about love in a surveillance state.

Emily Kester (Marianne) and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Nick) in Edgar & Annabel. Photograph by Igor Dmitry.

A husband-like man (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) opens the door into an ordinary kitchen and calls out, “Honey, I’m home!” A wife-like woman (Emily Kester) looks up from the meal she’s preparing in horror. She clearly doesn’t know him from Adam, but for some reason, she must pretend that she does. Whomever she was expecting to walk through that door has been replaced. After a few breathless pauses, the “couple” continue their greetings, reading from two scripts held in their hands like actors in an early rehearsal.

Right away, British playwright Sam Holcroft’s intriguing Edgar & Annabel grabs theatergoers by their collective lapels and forces them to ask, “What is going on here?”

Studio 2ndStage’s production, directed by Holly Twyford, doesn’t maintain that curtain-up level of mystery and intensity, but the play is never less than absorbing and intermittently gripping. Twyford and Holcroft worked together on some revisions of the 2011 script and on Americanizing the language for this US premiere. Yet it could still benefit, without compromising its surrealism or surprises, from a richer between-the-lines backstory and stronger internal logic. The staging could use more visual logic, as well. For example, how can something that looks a lot like a Molotov cocktail, albeit with fuse and detonator, really be expected to blow up a huge building? Other scenes lack the tautness essential to making this dystopian near-future parable fully catch fire.

One protracted scene begins in a crackerjack way and then fizzles from sheer length and repetition. Without giving it all away, the scene involves our original couple, Nick (Ebrahimzadeh) and Marianne (Kester), who are merely posing as fictional people named Edgar and Annabel, hosting another couple (Lauren E. Banks and Jacob Yeh) for a karaoke party. As they all take turns belting rock ballads, their real reason for getting together proves to be something highly dangerous, secret, and underground. They must drown out their real work from prying authoritarian ears.

One can imagine a film director and editor turning such a scene into a lightning montage of physical, aesthetic, and moral contradictions, mixing comedy with a sense of menace. In this staging, those elements exist in the script and on the stage, but don’t gel. The actors have too much stage business to do, and they do it over and over and over until the thrill is gone.

None of this is to say that the show doesn’t have power, from playwright Holcroft’s nifty concept to director Twyford’s deft way with the cast. A multiple Helen Hayes Award winner, the well-known Washington actress has recently added directing to her set of skills, and it’s not surprising that she knows how to elicit strong performances from others. Studio 2ndStage is the non-Equity arm of Studio Theatre, dedicated to showcasing edgier new works, giving older works a new edge, and casting some performers who are just starting their careers, post-conservatory.

In Ebrahimzadeh’s ex-military Nick, Twyford gets more than strong fledgling work. He is the real deal. In this and other shows where we have seen him—as the Iraqi interpreter in Round House’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, and various shows with Forum Theatre—he has never been less than terrific, with the vocal, physical, and psychological heft of a pro. As Nick’s assigned partner Marianne, Kester nails the seriousness of their situation, their initial dislike and growing attraction, but not so much the ironies. It’s a question of relaxation and perhaps of youth. Lisa Hodsoll, a veteran actress with reserves of power, could also use a touch of lightness in her role as the honcho from the resistance “movement” who gives everyone their marching orders. In fact, the entire cast, all of them concentrated and energetic, could use an injection of irony. Going directly for laughs rarely works, but coming at a situation a little sideways could add a lot to Holcroft’s cautionary tale of a land in which people can be “disappeared” for telling a joke.

The kitchen set—spacious and deliberately generic for a fake married couple—is by Debra Booth. Adrian Rooney did the quick-change lighting, which effectively notes sudden elevations in danger. The mood-enhancing sound design, with snatches of ominous news reports, was created by Palmer Hefferan.

Edgar & Annabel embodies Studio 2ndStage’s mission and does it not with perfection, but with much creative energy: It tackles an unusual, highly theatrical new work by an up-and-coming playwright (Holcroft is writer-in-residence at the National Theatre Studio in London), with an up-and-coming cast, directed by a fine actress spreading her wings in a new direction.

Edgar & Annabel is at Studio Theatre through January 5. Running time: about 95 minutes with no intermission. Tickets ($30 to $35) are available at Studio’s website.