Quincy Tyler Bernstine in A Small, Melodramatic Story
(© Monique Carboni)
Quincy Tyler Bernstine in A Small, Melodramatic Story
(© Monique Carboni)
Are some answers not worth knowing? Stephen Belber's terrific new play, A Small, Melodramatic Story, wrestles with this question. Its protagonist, O (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), thinks her husband, a former military man, died because he didn't have enough to live for -- but her friend Keith (Lee Sellars) has other ideas. He works for the National Security Archive, and it's his job to sift through declassified documents and find out all kinds of information that has been kept from the American public.

Keith's philosophy is that everything is knowable because it's human nature to document. However, while he conducts his investigation, an even greater question surfaces concerning O's new romantic interest, Perry (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), an African-American cop. Fifteen years ago, Perry had fatally shot a young Salvadorean boy. Was it an accident in the line of duty, or was the killing racially motivated? And is O prepared to accept the consequences that go along with the pursuit of an answer?

The action of the play is set in and around the Washington, D.C. metro area; there are references to places such as Falls Church and Arlandria, Virginia that have definite class connotations. Belber's attention to such details is refreshing and serves to enrich the piece. Also, his focus on the questionable ethics involved in retrieving certain kinds of information is quite timely, given recent scandals about the Bush administration's authorization of the National Security Agency to spy on American citizens.

This LAByrinth Theater Company production is notable for Lucie Tiberghien's taut direction and a fine ensemble cast. A scene in which O and Perry trade information about each others' pasts might have come across as overly expository in the wrong hands, but Tiberghien stages it as a literal dance that puts the emphasis on the playfulness of the situation. At many points, actors who are not in the current scene remain onstage, "ghosting" the action. This adds resonance to the characters' subsequent appearances, and it underscores the point that one person's actions can have an impact on someone who may not be present.

Bernstine is sexy, driven, and uncompromising as O. Her connection to the material is palpable, particularly when the character confronts Perry about the shooting. Whitlock is utterly charming as Perry woos O, and he demonstrates a wide range of other emotions when Perry feels under attack. He and Bernstine have combustible onstage chemistry, which is a definite plus.

Sellars is extremely funny and nerdishly adorable as Keith, yet he can pull out the stops when the material gets heavier. A scene between Keith and O late in the play is heartbreaking, thanks largely to Sellars' nuanced performance. Rounding out the cast is Carlo Alban as Cleo, the brother of the boy Perry killed; his understated characterization is entrancing and ultimately chilling.

Takeshi Kata's sleek, angular set resembles an office full of filing cabinets but serves to convey a number of other locations as well. Matthew Richards has done a beautiful job with the lighting; a moment near the end of the play, when O is illuminated by light streaming in from a window, is gorgeous and haunting. The work of Mimi O'Donnell (costumes) and Elizabeth Rhodes (sound) is also commendable.

The play's title might lead you to think that the production would be full of overblown performances and excessive sentimentality. On the contrary, Tiberghien and her cast make certain that every acting choice is perfectly pitched and that the extreme emotions of the characters are staggeringly heartfelt.