With the opening of former East German intelligence organ Stasi’s files after the fall of the Soviet empire, the wrenching truth emerged that approximately one in 10 citizens was informing on family and friends. In this production of Daniel Pinkerton’s uneven but frequently compelling new “Do You Want to Know a Secret?,” drama is wrought from the true story of a former political prisoner-turned-politician whose unearthing of her file revealed that her longtime husband, and the father of her child, had been informing on her throughout the course of their marriage.
The action alternates between the stage and projected interludes in which Walter (Stephen D’Ambrose) reveals personal details about his wife, Karin (Barbara Kingsley), a firebrand who also happens to be the daughter of Stasi officer Wolf (Harry Baxter).
In a surreal opening scene, Karin is imprisoned and Walter plays chess with daughter Erika (Maggie D’Ambrose). Their phone rings every 20 seconds or so with callers apparently seeking to buy fresh fish. It turns out to be a crude mind game staged by Stasi, apparently unsatisfied with imprisoning the family’s wife and mother for a decade.
Director Leah Cooper is tasked with balancing a veteran cast, a solid script and a low-budget staging. She is helped considerably by Kingsley: In the course of the evening she traces an arc from the vulnerability of her prison term to the uneasy relief of her release to the steely fire of her public renunciation of Walter. She generates a true sense of character evolution, evoking the scary perils of absolute lack of forgiveness.
Stephen D’Ambrose in recent years has played a series of characters of outward perplexity with inner stores of complication (notably in a 2004 production of Richard Greenberg’s “The Dazzle” at the Jungle Theater). Here he plays Karl with no such reserves. While D’Ambrose is hard to read in the first act (he seems frustratingly unaware of the firestorm to come once his past deeds are revealed), in the second he teases out the ambiguities of his character’s situation and the myriad small falsehoods he employed to justify his actions. He manages, in other words, to play a man who is inexcusable yet entirely sympathetic.
The father, mother and daughter onstage in fact play the same roles in real life, and Maggie D’Ambrose lends a credible presence of brainy youthfulness to the proceedings. She stands in for us, admitting Walter’s failings while wishing for a way for Karin to forget them. Of course it’s impossible.
Playwright Pinkerton has hitched his narrative wagon to something that approaches tragedy, with the inherent failings of his characters driving them toward sheer impossibility (the primary weakness of the script is a tendency toward literalness and over-explaining in latter scenes).
In this smart but unpolished piece of theater, one sees a work of potential. For all its flaws, it manages to wrest drama from the intractable circumstances of a particular chapter of history.