There’s room in the deceptively brief title of Ari Roth’s Life in Refusal for a double meaning, and there’s time in the play’s economical 95 minutes for more than the simple primary narrative. Yes, the quietly affecting story that unfolds at Theater J is nominally about the events that draw an American academic into the life of an ailing Soviet “refusenik” circa 1988—but Life in Refusal is also a graceful, often funny meditation on the way some of us use what we do to distance ourselves from who we are.

Roth’s ostensible subject is the real-life figure of Benjamin Charny (Lawrence Redmond), an honest-to-God rocket scientist whose repeated applications for an emigrant visa were repeatedly denied by the same Soviet authorities who said his expertise was no longer cutting-edge enough to make him employable. But the vital center of Life in Refusal is the mostly fictional character of Alison (Holly Twyford), an adventurous young scholar who goes to Russia to document the dawning of glasnost and perestroika and winds up unable to keep the requisite distance from what she’s there to record.

In Roth’s scenario, what moves Alison isn’t so much the sheer inhumanity of Charny’s situation—the Soviets block his exit out of mere habit, it seems, and in spite of the likelihood that American doctors can better treat the cancer that threatens to kill him—as the simple human connections he forges with her over time. They’re the sort of ties any two people could build on the basis of shared interests and intellectual compatibility, but what gives them that crucial urgency that makes for activism is the heritage Charney and Alison share: They’re both Jewish, and Ben is as intimately conscious of his roots as Alison is removed from hers.

And so the play’s narrative, fragmented by Alison’s ironic asides and her direct, knowing addresses to the audience, is as much the story of her reconnection to that common history as it is the chronicle of Ben’s flight west: The woman who at the top of the show has “had it up to here with my people”—who’s determined to look past her Bronx-born father’s roots and the “victim shit” she sees inextricably tangled in them—is, by evening’s end, ready to acknowledge the reality of ingrained anti-Semitism in the refusenik equation, ready to surrender to the lilt of a Yiddish folk song that she earlier didn’t even want to admit she knew.

If all that sounds like a recipe for theatrical disaster, Roth skirts the dangers of sentimentality with a deft script that balances the softer bits with crisp dialogue and what can be a startlingly immediate sense of place. More than once, the specificity of a particular description helps focus the broad strokes of the story: A budding Moscow capitalist, explaining the government’s fears of a Western-orchestrated “brain drain,” references Buicks and bungalows, SDI and Massachusetts’ “Route one-two-eight,” Framingham and defense contracts. There’s an arresting offhand reference to “the endless wooden escalator” down to the Moscow subway—who knew such a thing existed?—and what initially seems like an indulgently lyrical description of a sauna interlude at an apparatchik’s dacha turns out, as Roth brings Alison around to confront the realities of Ben’s oppression, to be an especially effective metaphor about responsibility.

And always, until the very last sequence surrenders gracefully but wholeheartedly to feeling, there is that detached, ironic stance to keep things from congealing, to acknowledge the audience’s sympathies and play to them without ever forgetting the theatrical necessity of brisk, sharp-edged characters and scenes. To Alison, for instance, international aid projects are “promises—with strings.” Confronted with a humanitarian appeal featuring Ben’s picture, she complains about the bleakness of the black-and-white mug shot: “The people who printed these things must’ve gone rummaging through old photos to pick the most depressing ones they could find. Oh, and the inscription: ‘FREE BEN CHARNY!,’ with the proverbial exclamation mark! There was always an exclamation mark in human rights in those days. Now they’ve learned. Eliminate the emphatic.”

That, in the practice of theatrical realpolitik, is what comes about when a playwright knows his audience well enough to want it both ways—and knows his craft well enough to get it.

Even so, Refusal could be a mess in the wrong hands. Wendy C. Goldberg directs here with an efficient style that knows how to help actors shade a line reading with a look or a gesture—Redmond telegraphs Ben’s surprise at the emptiness of American consumerism with a glance that takes in a TV and an overpriced jar of black-bean dip—and her design team supports her ably with a minimalist production that keeps the proceedings focused on a talented cast.

Twyford and Redmond, moreover, lead that ensemble with the easy confidence of veterans. Redmond’s thickly accented Charny is so relaxed and genial that you realize you’ve forgotten, watching him sing and dance in Signature Theatre’s musicals, that this man is a damn fine actor. And Twyford—onstage for almost every moment of the show—puts on the sort of self-assured performance that makes you suddenly aware of how thoroughly fearless this waifish young woman must be.

Among the actors who support them, Brook Butterworth, Daniel Ladmirault, John Dow, and especially Caren Anton deserve note for inhabiting a range of characters, from medium-sized to minor, and infusing each with convincing individuality. They’re as sharp and memorable as the leaping vocals and sharp rhythms of Steven Reich’s “Tehilim,” which plays as the lights go down.

It should be no surprise that Roth, in his director’s notes, uses words like “transform” to talk about what happens to Alison. In Life in Refusal, he’s taken the simple, profound stuff of real life and transformed it into effective theater—a different kind of stuff, no less profound and rarely as simple. It’s a delicate kind of alchemy, the process that gets you from one to the other, and Roth has a real gift for it. CP