I would love to play a game of bluffs with you, says one character to another at the beginning of John W. Lowell’s “The Letters,” and thus revealed is the playwright’s intention — to create a verbal game of cat and mouse where the roles of hunter and hunted can shift without warning. Despite this intriguing setup, however, the piece is somewhat ponderous and predictable and, even at an hour and 20 minutes, would benefit from tightening and trimming. Nevertheless, the world premiere production by the Andak Stage Company features two terrific performances that demonstrate the play’s potential.
In 1931 Russia, Anna (Julia Fletcher) has been called to the office of the Director (Norman Snow) for a meeting. Initially, the Director tries to put Anna at ease without explaining the reason for her presence. Eventually he begins to ask questions about a series of letters from a prominent composer that Anna and her department are censoring, questions not only about the letters’ content but, more tellingly, about the actions of her co-workers. The information Anna has, however, is not what the Director expects, and gradually the interrogation begins to unravel.
Fletcher brings intelligence and depth to her perf as the nervous but not helpless Anna, a realist who understands that the value of truth has been supplanted by the pursuit of success at any cost in her country. Fletcher’s subtle work at the play’s conclusion, when Anna undergoes a sad but clear-eyed realization of her situation, adds emotional resonance to the play.
Snow has the showier part as the Director, and he runs with it in a vivid and humorous portrayal of this grinning predator, well described by Anna as not a scalpel type when there’s a cleaver available. Snow’s perf is expertly modulated, from the controlled tones of his voice to the character’s barely repressed glee at his own supposed cleverness, which finally explodes in open recognition of his sadism as he bellows that he interrogated Anna because it amused him to do so.
Director Anne McNaughton has drawn excellent performances from her cast, but the problems in the writing keep the show from being a complete success. Perhaps imposing more stylized lighting to heighten the emotion of the interrogation might punch things up a bit, but McNaughton has chosen to present the play simply as written, and she has showcased its strong points admirably. Lowell’s dialogue is crisp and credible, but the power shift between the characters, which is presumably meant to be a surprise but is almost expected in this sort of play, is disappointing when no further twist arrives. Furthermore, the play takes its time getting to this nonsurprise, merely belaboring the obvious.