On the surface, The Letters refers to communications written by the beloved Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky to his male lover – letters so full of explicit “degenerate” material that the government gets involved to “purge” and clean them up.
The originals were destroyed as directed, but not before illicit copies, we eventually learn, were made. Evidence of such perversion in a treasured national figure would damage reputations, discredit the regime and taint the country’s sense of “decency,” so the officials must get to work to hunt down the illegal copies.
The Soviet bureaucrat in charge, identified only as Director and played masterfully by Michael Russotto, sets out to do just that—only he doesn’t realize that he’s met his match in the timid and mousey Anna, played with aplomb by Susan Lynskey. The two set out on a psychological cat and mouse chase which must be seen to be believed, with twists and turns that will leave you on the edge of your seat–literally.
Anna’s importance is emphasized even before her entrance when her shadow spookily appears though the office door’s window. Lynskey’s Anna has all the traits of a tightly wound, wounded little bird, ready to jump and flee when startled. What Lynskey does with such simple things as how she rests her hands and tiny shifts in her translucent gaze expressing emotional transitions is exquisite.
Michael Russotto’s “Director” blusters with bravado, soothes her with chumminess, builds up her confidence, and even offers her a promotion, but then he starts to hurl accusations and knocks the wind out of her describing maleficent acts, only to delicately brush them aside as “unpleasantness” in the next moment.
There is never an insincere moment between these two artists as they wrestle with the twisted possibilities which playwright John Lowell has laid out for them – unexpected possibilities that pop up at each twisty turn.
Lynskey and Russotto have worked together over the years building trust and it shows in how carefully and beautifully they keep up with and feed off each other. The intricate dance is carefully orchestrated by director John Vreeke, who lets the two sizzle and circle each other, while physically moving the action from the formidable desk to the leather chairs towards stage left where placement and height of one character over the other speaks volumes.
Menacing threats of treachery prevail as Anna’s world unravels as the Director reveals his information. He incessantly brow-beats her until she admits an affair with a colleague implicated in the treachery. But just as she hits rock bottom, the tides turn as Anna suddenly begins to feed into his warped psychology and questions his own motives. Before you can figure out who’s zooming who, it becomes clear that no one is safe or secure or sure of anything, especially of the truth. Lost is any sense of ethics. Or moral code of any kind.
May 15 – June 14
1201 North Royal Street
1 hour, 20 minutes, no intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $50 – $55
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You might easily leave MetroStage rocked with such ambiguity about what just happened that the natural urge would be to see it again to look out for clues, hints and pieces of what’s said—and just as important, what’s not.
Set in Russia during the Stalin era of the 1930’s, the tenets of the play work just as well when considering McCarthy’s Committee on Un-American Activities, J. Edgar Hoover’s outrageous reach, or the ongoing privacy breaches of today.
Set design by Giorgos Tsappas includes an oversized window frame slanted across the ceiling giving the impression of constant surveillance. Sound by Aaron Fensterheim includes the treasured composer’s beautiful sonatas and piano concertos, a soothing counterpoint that belies the crescendo of threatening insinuations which his letters set loose. Alexander Keen’s lighting design creates ominous shadows and light bulbs that flare intensely during the interrogation.
“Truth doesn’t matter here,” Anna tells The Director as she exits in the shattering finale. Maybe not in the context of this well -structured provocative piece, but The Letters will keep you thinking about truth, consequences…and more.
The Letters by John W. Lowell . Directed by John Vreeke . Featuring Michael Russotto and Sysan Lynskey . Set Design: Giogos Tsappas . Lighting Design: Alexander Keen . Costume Design: Ivania Stack . Sound Design: Aaron Fensterheim . Master Electrician: Alexander Keen . Stage Manager: Richard Lore assisted by Eliza Lore. Produced by MetroStage . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.