Dueling performances make this stripped-down Soviet-era thriller riveting.
Dueling performances make this stripped-down Soviet-era thriller riveting. Credit: Handout photo by Chris Banks

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Passion trumps state authority in The Letters, John W. Lowell’s brief, bitter two-hander currently enjoying a run at Alexandria’s MetroStage. The 2009 play, set in a propaganda ministry in Soviet Russia, does what any good one-act show should do and effectively sketches in the world just beyond the cloistered onstage setting. This is good: The action is so stripped-down, so devoid of theatrics, that only our belief in the larger ideas at stake keeps The Letters from crumbling like the society it depicts.

In the expansive office of the too-important-to-be-named Director (Michael Russotto), a ministry grunt named Anna (Susan Lynskey) is summoned for mysterious reasons. Over the next hour, the Director will grill Anna on everything from her job (she exorcises lewd passages from significant Russian cultural figures’ correspondences) to her coworkers (she shares an office with an old drunk and a younger man of dubious loyalty) to the nature of truth in society (“It takes a certain skill to differentiate between a desperate lie and a desperate truth”).

After much meandering, Anna is teased with a promotion. But first there’s an investigation at hand: Someone in her office has been making uncensored copies of their documents, including particularly pornographic letters by a noteworthy composer. As a mark of her presumed commitment to the Party, Anna must help the Director bring the culprit to justice. (Lowell’s script is mercifully free of overly political lectures, because we get it.) The play is based on Soviet efforts to purge the writings of Tchaikovsky of all their passion, though the “composer” here is never named.

As is typically the case with two-handers, including 1st Stage’s just-wrapped run of Old Wicked Songs, the fun of The Letters comes from seeing who is in control and watching the tables turn. For much of the play, the Director stalks Anna like a lion, circling her as he badgers her with misleading questions, flipping emotions on a dime from cloyingly sweet to spittle-inflected rage. Credit Russotto’s suitably terrifying work with keeping tensions lively: “No! Interruptions!” he bellows at one point, as chills run down our spines. But Lynskey’s subtler, largely reactive performance may be more impressive—she really does seem to shrink and wither with every verbal blow. She rarely gets a chance to grow, to turn those tables, until the interrogation is winding down, and the play’s central weakness is how the sparring resembles a Floyd Mayweather bout: few showy maneuvers, a verdict awarded by technical skill.

John Vreeke, the director (as opposed to the Director), barrels through this slim material with enough momentum to make its brevity a positive. Lighting designer Alexander Keen milks some nice noir moments from actors’ silhouettes appearing just outside the office door, but otherwise Vreeke rarely opens up the talk-heavy affair to stylistic flourishes, and there isn’t much puncturing the Director’s steady stream of intimidations. Audiences who expected a bit more meat with their $50–55 tickets may leave unsatisfied. Then again, this is the Soviet Union, where meat must be rationed and the truly loyal can always thrive on less.

1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. $50–$55. (703) 548-9044. metrostage.org.