Stephen Patrick Martin and Danielle Davy in Christmas Eve
Stephen Patrick Martin and Danielle Davy in Christmas Eve Credit: Daniel Carkuff-Corey

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The audience sits down in front of a wall with a large panoramic window frame. The blinds are shut. A video of a June 7, 2013 address by Barack Obama is then projected onto the wall. “It’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society,” the then president intones. 

Thomas (Stephen Patrick Martin) then opens the blinds, revealing a sterile office, personalized only by a Santa Claus bobblehead, a thermos filled with coffee, and a doughnut with pink frosting and sprinkles. His nondescript wardrobe is offset with a tie adorned with cartoon images (Shakespeare is visible from the third row). The numbers of a digital clock start ticking forward. Video montage, here created by Hailey LaRoe and projected onto Nadir Bey’s set, is a signature technique for ExPats Theatre, currently presenting Christopher Hampton‘s translation of German/Austrian playwright Daniel Kehlmann‘s Christmas Eve.

Thomas uses a card to unlock the door and he is soon joined by Judith (Danielle Davy), wearing an elegant coat with a fur collar and a forest green velvet dress. It’s Christmas Eve, and Judith has been intercepted on her way to her parents’ house. Thomas poses prying questions about her ex-husband and her parents, and after giving her repeated acknowledgments that “this is a law-abiding country,” he  asks, “Where is the bomb?” Thomas works with a counter-terrorism task force, and Judith is a philosophy professor. The authorities have reason to believe that a bomb may be detonated at midnight.

A trail of evidence has led to the arrest of her ex-husband, a sociology professor at the same university just as he left Judith’s home the night before. He’s being questioned by one of Thomas’ colleagues elsewhere in the building. What has he said?

It is tempting to compare Christmas Eve to Harold Pinter‘s one-act play One for the Road, which Scena Theater presented three years ago, especially since director Karin Rosnizeck, Martin, and Davy have all worked with Scena in the past. In that play, an interrogator for a fascist regime psychologically and physically menaces members of a family one by one. Thomas however, is no fascist: He’s the last line of defense for liberal democracy. Judith has seen from television police procedurals that she is entitled to her lawyer (inconveniently spending his Christmas in Iceland), one phone call, and that she can only be detained for 24 hours without charge. Thomas has read her 764-page doctoral thesis on Frantz Fanon‘s concept of revolutionary violence and though he finds it tedious, and describes much of it in scatological terms, he nonetheless supports freedom of speech, academic freedom (at the state university that employs Judith), and freedom of the press: His mandate is keeping civil society safe from bombs and bullets.

Davy and Martin are smart actors playing smart people, letting subtext say as much as text. She knows she’s not completely powerless at the police station. Thomas isn’t just being self-deprecating when he discusses how much his ex-wife despises him; he is laying groundwork for further questions. When he ridicules Judith’s interest in Fanon and other left-wing intellectuals, he wants her to explain how one distinguishes between structural violence, by which oppression and exploitation are normalized, and revolutionary violence, by which the oppressed attack these structures and that she’s willing to defend as legitimate—at least in the lecture hall. Not surprisingly, Judith bristles at the word “terrorism” and considers jihadism to be “a distraction” because it doesn’t fit into her categories. Thomas wants to see if her scholarly work is just theoretical or if it could lead her to planting a bomb.

In the United States, we are more accustomed to think of terrorists as being inspired by either right-wing extremism or jihadism, but Kehlmann, born in 1975 and raised in both Munich and Vienna, grew up during a time of left-wing terrorism, most notably the Red Army Faction, which until its disbanding in 1998, engaged in a campaign of bombings, assassinations, abductions, and bank robberies, often with weapons and money from the East German Stasi, and allegedly during the 1980s, a KGB officer stationed in Dresden named Vladimir Putin

In Rosnizeck’s staging, the window through which we view the proceedings is a one-way mirror: We have been  cast in the role of Thomas’ colleagues assigned to the case, implicated if we are tempted to think of the drama as security state overreach, or are moved by Judith’s description of  uranium mining in Niger. It’s an ingenious conceit that can only be effectively executed in a small theater space like the blackbox in the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Lab II—and a good reminder that sometimes the most important theater is in small spaces.

Christmas Eve runs to April 20 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. $20–$40. (202) 399-7993.