Freedom fighters hide in plain domestic sight in Sam Holcroft's 2011 hybrid of political thriller and political farce.
You can't blame Holcroft if her conspiracy thriller, a sort of V for Vendetta meets The Lives of Others, feels a little dated, even at only four years old. Little could the British author have known when she was writing that her central bogeyman, government surveillance, would soon blow up to become the stuff of increasingly nuanced real-world international scandals and hysteria.
By comparison to the dramas caused by Edward Snowden's leaked National Security Agency intel, the recent slew of massive corporate and private data thefts and the advent of political cyber vandalism, Holcroft's 1984 retread almost seems quaint. No, spooky Big Brothers aren't the ambiguity-shrouded phantom forces they used to be—nowadays, they live in Utah, China, and your own pocket.
But Brad Akin's production for The Poor Theatre doesn't live in the new, complicated world of digital spying, much less a world of specifics. It's stuck with Holcroft and the outmoded question of what if? rather than what now?
Nick and Marianne (Michael Medford and Abbey Smith) pose as a seemingly ordinary, liberal couple living together in a small urban apartment under the names "Edgar" and "Annabel." Under constant audio surveillance, the two read scripts to one another, prepared by a shadowy Deep Throat–type political dissident named Miller (Rob McLean), in order to mask their anti-government activity from the regime-operated computers listening at all times.
As the two fumble to find a convincing rhythm, it becomes clear this isn't the first "Edgar" Marianne has worked with. The monitoring technology doesn't pick up on specific voices, only dialogue. As rebels die off, others assume the homemaker characters, creating a benign civilian front for a ragtag militia network. Through hushed parking garage scenes, Holcroft's crutch for conveying exposition, Miller explains how the fake couple's efforts—equipment storage, communication, explosive-making—will help topple a totalitarian dictator who murders political opponents.
As the couple's professional relationship deepens, so does their comfort in their domestic arrangement. It has the makings for good satire, and Akin capitalizes on it when he can. An impromptu karaoke party with friends, for one, underscores a wry, methodically directed and sinister-looking bomb-making session.
It then inexplicably drags on for three complete songs, breaking both the tension and the humor. And that's indicative of one of the two major hurdles preventing Edgar & Annabel from landing on a strong idea: It posits itself as both thriller and comedy without delivering fully on either. (Isabel Strauss's scene design and Kelsey Melvin's costumes similarly avoid strong stylistic choices.)
The other, unavoidably, is Holcroft's repetitive scene work. Medford and Smith rise to the exaggerated marital affectation we're led to believe will fool the system, but as actors, it doesn't give them much to play with, nor do McLean's exasperated exposition dumps. After a few trips back-and-forth between the home and Deep Throat meetings, Edgar & Annabel shows its full hand long before its 90 minutes are up.
The Poor Theatre at the side project. By Sam Holcroft. Directed by Brad Akin. With Michael Medford, Abbey Smith, Robert McLean, Erika Haaland, Will Crouse, Dillon Kelleher, Laura Berner Taylor, Elise Spoerlein, Joe Anderson. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.