An inscrutable sense of dread ties together the two one-act plays now on stage at ion theatre in Hillcrest, Sam Holcroft’s Edgar & Annabel and Caryl Churchill’s Far Away. While the opener a spy story with karaoke (am not making that up) survives its inscrutability and even morphs into a suspenseful curiosity piece, the second work, making its local premiere, never rises above enigmatic. Edgar & Annabel’s game of fool big brother – building a high-powered explosive in an English flat that’s bugged – is also quite playful, though the karaoke is hardly music to one’s ears. Far and Away’s creep-show theatrics, on the other hand, overwhelm whatever comment about war and survival is being forwarded.
Survival is the thread between the two plays, which in total run about an hour and 45 minutes with intermission. In Edgar & Annabel, the survival of “the organization” and its agents is at stake as well as some unspecified revolt. In Far Away, survival is a grim, apocalyptic prospect where the hat-makers of all people are instrumental in war-wracked humanity’s fate. The difference is, we care about Nick (portraying clandestine agent Edgar) and Marianne (portraying Annabel), both when they’re at odds and when they fall in love (their undoing). It’s fruitless to care about anyone in Far Away. They all might as well be ghosts.
Linda Libby, part of ion’s company, directs both one-acts with ingenuity. She moves the actors in Edgar & Annabel around the little theater space, sometimes to within inches of the audience, which ratchets up the tension. A slow, haunting parade of doomed hat-wearers is Far Away’s money moment. You sit there and hope none of them gets within inches of you.
All cast members other than 10-year-old Abby DeSpain appear in both plays, with Robin Christ (as the secret agents’ boss and then the sinister matriarch Harper) looming large over each. Zack Bonin and Abby Fields give credence to Nick and Marianne’s raw nerves and heightening feelings for each other in Edgar & Annabel, while Hanz Enyeart matches Christ paranoia for paranoia in a fear-mongering discourse near Far Away’s “huh?” finale.
Too bad karaoke wasn’t employed in the second play on the bill. Nine Inch Nails would’ve been perfect.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.