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Is there any staple of suspense films more hoary than the bomb-defusing sequence? Those glowing red LED digits ticking coolly, unsympathetically down to zero, and oblivion. (Six.) The sweat-dappled brow of the hero as he kneels over the device, alert for boobytraps, trying to quiet his mind so he can assess whether to snip the red wire or the blue one. (Five.) Or the black one? (Four.) In the sodium glow of his flashlight (Three!), don’t the blue and the black wires (Two!) look almost exactly alike? (ONE!)
By the time it’s half-over, Edgar & Annabel—-which is, yes, a play, not a film—-has deftly upended that cinematic cliche, giving us the most thrilling bomb-assembly sequence in recent memory. And that’s on screen or stage, where you’re far less likely to encounter demolitions work.
Indeed, aside from her most obvious inspiration—-George Orwell’s iconic novel 1984—-the sources British playwright Sam Holcroft synthesizes for her psychological thriller all seem to be from film: A lot of The Lives of Others, the Oscar-winning drama about life in the East German police state circa 1984; a little Brazil; a little North by Northwest; a little The Truman Show.
The bravura bombmaking centerpiece that director Holly Twyford pulls off approaches the white-knuckle grace of several classic, wordless, unusually lengthy action sequences from the movies: The heist in Jules Dassin’s French noir crime thriller Rififi, or the break-in to C.I.A. headquarters from Mission: Impossible — the Brian Di Palma one, with Tom Cruise hanging by his waist just centimeters above an alarmed, pressure-sensitive floor. You certainly can’t fault her taste.
Twyford’s riveting production for Studio Theatre’s 2ndStage is Edgar & Annabel’s U.S. debut. The play, which first appeared in 2011, follows a pair of deep-cover resistance fighters sharing a safe house in an unnamed oppressive state, struggling to maintain the illusion of their couplehood for the benefit of the government’s omnipresent but unsophisticated listening devices. You never know what kind of anomaly in your speech might prompt the surveillance software to flag you for a visit by a flesh-and-blood member of the Gestapo, and then its a black hood and zip-cuffs for you. The play was written before the world knew Edward Snowden‘s name, but it would be riveting even without this frission of accidental topicality.
This pair of operatives—-played by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh and Emily Kester, each giving an ingeniously calibrated performance—-are still getting used to one another, so their dialogue is scripted by their handler (a tightly wound Lisa Hodsoll). Watching Ebrahimzadeh and Kester, two very good actors, deliver intentionally unpersuasive line readings of intentionally wretched dialogue while revealing their true feelings through action is the show’s most immediate delight. Its others build more slowly. For example, the stunning realization that you’re rooting for the people who’re conspiring to blow up a government building. Surely not every person inside is Joseph Goebbels. (This government’s official explanations for its nefarious deeds come via news broadcasts delivered by a voice National Public Radio listeners will recognize.)
Their bomb-building dance unfolds over 20 or so minutes, while we listen to two pairs of insurgents distractedly howl four power ballads on a karaoke machine as sonic cover for their operation. That’s one song too many, actually, but to knock something this imaginative and crisply staged for going on too long would just be ungrateful.
This kind of meticulously choreographed, uninterrupted action is the very nature of live theater. And yet the word that keeps demanding to be applied to it is “cinematic,” which of course describes the illusion of uninterrupted action through the clever assembly of thousands of individual shots, photographed in different places and at different times.
But what to call this, then? “Stagey?” That sounds pejorative.
Edgar & Annabel is the kind of bracing achievement that seems to demand a new vocabulary.
Photo by Igor Dmitry
The play runs through Jan. 5 at Studio 2ndStage.