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Review: 'The Letters' at New Place Studio Theatre

March 19, 2009 |  2:00 pm

Norman_snow_julia_fletcher_photo_by When it comes to driving an Orwellian wedge between language and truth, the Stalin-era Soviet Union had few peers, as the premiere of "The Letters" from NoHo's Andak Stage Company   chillingly reminds us.

A duel of wits at the crossroads of art and politics, John W. Lowell's taut, impeccably performed two-hander is set in 1931 against a totalitarian backdrop in which reality is entirely what those in power pronounce it to be.

A sense of dread pervades the claustrophobic ministry office to which a smug, unnamed Director (Norman Snow) has summoned his low-level subordinate, ostensibly to interview her for a promotion. His air of self-deprecating, overly solicitous camaraderie only deepens the apprehensions of Anna (Julia Fletcher), an "archivist" whose own job -- the systematic practice of censorship and disinformation -- has taught her to take nothing at face value.

In a nimbly executed game of cat-and-mouse, the Director's fawning compliments give way first to thinly veiled insults, then accusations involving Anna's current assignment: editing letters penned by a state-sanctioned composer whose chronicles of sexual exploits could bring discredit on the regime if they became public.

Anne McNaughton's intermission-less staging relentlessly escalates tension as the stakes deepen. Snow's pitch-perfect  Director is a skillful manipulator, yet beneath the veneer of Marxist ideology he invokes to legitimize his tactics, baleful flashes betray his resentment of Anna's superior education and intelligence.

Fletcher's Anna proves a worthy sparring partner, sidestepping damaging disclosures and finessing some particularly challenging pivot points in the shifting balance of power.

To reveal more would spoil intricate twists that both demand and reward close attention. Suffice it to say that Lowell's cautionary drama is both a gripping portrait of a political system in which truth is merely a construct of convenience, and an object lesson in the unpredictable consequences.

--Philip Brandes

"The Letters," New Place Studio Theatre, 10950 Peach Grove St., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 19. $20. (866) 811-4111. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

Caption: Norman Snow and Julia Fletcher in "The Letters" at New Place Studio Theatre. Credit: John DeMita

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