The English Bride revolves around two separate interrogations, both conducted in grim, gray rooms by an intense Mossad agent named Dov. In one room is Ali Said, an Arab resident of Israel who may be responsible for a failed bombing attempt on an El Al flight out of London. In the other room sits Eileen, a British barmaid engaged to Ali Said, who may or may not have been co-opted into the plan.
And what do they talk about in Lucile Lichtblau’s elegant, smart, riveting new play, being given a knockout premiere production at Theatre Exile? The drudgery of daily work life. How to flirt. Lasagna.
“What?” I hear you thinking. “I know what interrogations really look like! I watched 24. Some swarthy man is chained to a chair and frothing at the mouth. Jack Bauer is pounding the table. Outside, other CIA agents are setting up perimeters and arguing about who’s in charge. Nearby, a building blows up.” Or maybe you’re classier than that, and you understand interrogations from Homeland. In that case, you’ve upgraded to Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin, and the dialogue is more sophisticated. But there is still a lot of yelling, and something still blows up.
Here is playwright Lichtblau’s simple yet revelatory premise: Maybe suspected terrorists talk like normal people. Perhaps they have homes, spouses, children, outside interests. And just possibly, even in tense situations, they are capable of coherent, civil conversations.
What makes The English Bride so terrific is that this changes everything. On the one hand, we can — sometimes, under some circumstances — actually sympathize with these people. On the other, well, that makes them even scarier.
It’s Eileen, the English Bride of the title, who most completely engages us on both levels. She’s funny, rueful, self-aware and self-deprecating — but also nobody’s fool, and disconcertingly devoted to Ali Said. We hang on her every word, trying to figure out what lies beneath. It helps, of course, that actress Corinna Burns gives a superb performance, all the more astonishing for its utterly believable, almost heartbreaking ordinariness. But the triumph is also Lichtblau’s, because Eileen’s dialogue is so natural and right. When we hear her talk about her awkward romantic relationships, it has the uncomfortable ring of truth.
There’s less for us to identify with in Ali Said — one imagines Lichtblau is keeping the character deliberately ambiguous — but he too feels real. The character is likewise given a fine, nuanced performance by J Paul Nicholas, who manages to be thoroughly charming and a little frightening all at once. Dov makes less of an impression — he’s a facilitator, rather than a full participant — but actor Damon Bonetti brings an intensity that’s especially effective in moments of silent observation.
In fact, the sense of watching — not only Dov watching his suspects, but the larger sense of how we all observe and draw conclusions — is a major factor in director Deborah Block’s beautifully realized production. The tight confines of Theatre Exile’s space make audience members acutely aware of one another. The effect is all the more striking because Colin McIlvaine’s set presents the action in an enclosed room with three large, open windows — almost like a large terrarium — and the audience is always visible. In another play, it might be distracting, but here it only contributes to the tension.
Block’s direction also sharply etches The English Bride’s timeline. Some events happen in the present, others are fragmented memories from the past; some conversations happen between characters, other moments are addressed directly to the audience. It’s complicated, but absolutely clear.
And that’s all I’m going to tell you. The English Bride demands to be seen (and given the small size of the theater, you should book early). If you think TV and film have taught you know all you need to know about terrorist interrogations, prepare to have your world rocked.
Through Dec. 2, $32-$37, Studio X, 1340 S. 13th St., 215-218-4022, theatreexile.org.