Our city has a long history of conflating people with their chosen profession. Of course, being Washington, there are large subsets of our residents who can’t disclose what they do for a living without getting into some pretty hot water.
code name: Cynthia, the latest show from Pallas Theatre Collective, steeps us in that hot water.
The play’s plot has been liberally adapted from the historical tale of Elizabeth “Betty” Thorpe, a spy who played a key role in uncovering state secrets during World War II. A well-to-do Washingtonian, Thorpe uncovered more than secrets while on the job, often bedding the men who she thought could be helpful in connecting her to the information she sought.
This new musical from husband-and-wife team Steve Multer (book and lyrics) and Karen Multer (music) hones in on Betty’s return to Washington after a long stint overseas. Betty (Gracie Jones) is engaged to Arthur Pack (Joshua Simon) and trying desperately to acclimate to the placid lifestyle of a non-spy. But when an unexpected guest (Jason Hentrich) turns up at her mother’s cocktail party, Betty is forced back into the life she’d put aside… this time right in her own backyard.
Directed by Tracey Elaine Chessum, the play’s conflict is twofold: On the political front, it is critical that the United States get hold of a series of naval codes locked in a safe atop the Vichy French Embassy, without anyone suspecting the codes have been breached. On a personal level, Betty is unsure of which path to choose – remain Cynthia and live the life of a spy and seductress, or settle into an affluent corner of the District with her mother and fiancé and prepare for a life of cocktail parties and domesticity. While the latter has the potential to be the more powerful dilemma, the pacing and momentum of the heist brings that plotline to the forefront.
Pallas has been working with the Multers on this project since 2014, seeing it through a series of workshops on college campuses as well as public readings around Washington and elsewhere. Most recently, the work returned to the International Spy Museum – the very spot that inspired the writers to create Cynthia.
All of this work pays off. It is deceptively easy to forget you’re watching a new musical. The orchestration, lyrics, and wit of Cynthia all come together with highly entertaining finesse. Though at times the script gets ahead of itself – asking us to invest in a character’s emotional journey when indeed we have no frame of reference yet, or reason to care – it is overall an engrossing (and educational) night of theatre.
As you might expect, the title character is poised to make or break a production of code name: Cynthia. Gracie Jones rises to the occasion, commanding the show with emotional and vocal dexterity and seldom leaving the stage. (If that’s not accomplishment enough, she also manages to belt while fully horizontal.)
Strong, well-voiced performances from Hentrich and Simon play well with Jones, and an ensemble (Beth Amann, Zach Brewster-Geisz, Axle Burtness, Will Hawkins, Christie Jackson, and Kathleen Mason) adds depth and dimension to the larger scenes. Several memorable numbers, including “Somewhere in Washington” (which will resonate with DC residents more acutely than others), “I Want This Life,” and “Careful What You Ask For,” will stay with you long after the performance.
While the choreography and mid-sized cast might have breathed more easily on a larger stage, they make do gracefully in the cozy Anacostia Arts Center black box. Projections (designed by Chessum and Caroline Brent) offer markers of place and time without further narrowing the playing area.
Ultimately, Cynthia is an ambitious girl who delivers on her promise. And if she squeezes some secrets out of you while you’re there? Well, just know that it’s for the greater good.