ExPats’ outstanding ‘Christmas Eve’ is a present for all seasons

The Austrian and German playwright, Daniel Kehlmann, calls his twisty script 'a play for two actors and a clock.' And it's right on time.

Be not deceived by the twinkly lights hung round the black box and the pre-show piano soundtrack tinkling Christmas tunes and the mottled green and red fill light on the set. This ExPats Theatre production is anything but a winsome holiday show. It is instead a tensely suspenseful and rivetingly well-written play about state surveillance and revolutionary violence and a bomb that may or may not go off at midnight on December 24.

The Austrian and German playwright, Daniel Kehlmann, calls his twisty script “a play for two actors and a clock,” and indeed a projected digital readout counts down tick by tick how much time is left.

Danielle Davy as Judith and Stephen Patrick Martin as Thomas in ‘Christmas Eve.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

We face a plain tan wall with a huge window that’s covered by vertical blinds. A man in a tacky tie and rumpled jacket opens the blinds and we realize we are observing an interrogation room as if from the dark side of a one-way mirror. This absolutely brilliant set concept by Scenic Designer Nadir Bey will make us feel privy to a fascinating contest of wit and will between a senior police investigator named Thomas (Stephen Patrick Martin) and an improbable suspected terrorist named Judith (Danielle Davy).

The room is grim, the door is locked. Thomas sits at a desk with a phone, books and papers, and of all things a bobblehead Santa. Judith enters warily yet regally, wrapped in a pricey black fur-collared coat. Judith is obviously not the typical “jihadist” Thomas says he routinely deals with post 9/11. She is a professor of philosophy who holds an endowed chair, “an academic,” as she tells Thomas, “who writes boring stuff about structural violence and occasionally goes on a demonstration.” She’s classy and poised, and under her coat wears a sleek green velvet dress (costume design is uncredited). But there’s no doubt she’s a Frantz Fanon–fan radical, and she makes clear whose side she’s on:

Judith: The main threat to the world is … poverty, and poverty isn’t an accident. We create it. And that’s what’s known as exploitation.

What ensues between Thomas and Judith is a first-rate cerebral thriller that had me transfixed. He’s on the side of law and order and the powers that be and he knows a lot about her. A scary lot. State surveillance has captured an almost minute-by-minute record of her life. So it is that he has grounds to be suspicious: Was Judith complicit in a bomb plot to call media attention to the oppression of the poor? Were she and her ex-husband co-conspirators? Thomas is determined to find out. The more he probes, the more the mystery deepens. And Karin Rosnizeck directs each bracing beat with arresting assurance.

Stephen Patrick Martin as Thomas and Danielle Davy as Judith in ‘Christmas Eve.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Under Thomas’s incessant questioning, Judith is put through a brain-wringer of emotion, which she does her best to cover, mainly with a strained stare into the mirror we are on the other side of. She does break at one point, and Davy manages the multiple intermediate modulations in Judith’s mood clearly enough, although some transitions are more persuasive than others.

Stephen Patrick Martin as Thomas and Danielle Davy as Judith in ‘Christmas Eve.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

As a stage presence, Davy’s Judith is no match for Martin’s Thomas, who charms, cajoles, taunts, and in one shocking outburst berates his helpless subject with such nuance and tonal shading we experience his expansive complexity as vivid and visceral coherence. And sometimes what he says is so quotable one wants to freeze the frame to take it in. For instance:

Thomas: The truth is, we’re completely powerless against people who are prepared to die. The man who’s prepared to die is unconquerable, unstoppable, immune from any punishment, only you can’t say that in public, because people are scared enough as it is.

Lighting and Projections Designer Hailey LaRoe has provided eyecatching underlining for the text of the play — which, translated from German into crackling English idiom by Christopher Hampton, doesn’t really need it. When a family dog is mentioned, for instance, we see on the frame huge faces of German Shepherds. When Judith’s ex-husband’s infidelities with students are mentioned, the frame fills with a montage of similar-looking young women’s faces. And so on. Sometimes these visuals are more sensory overload and distraction; at other times, as with the images of time ticking ineluctably toward midnight, it’s like a tightening vice.

Stephen Patrick Martin as Thomas and Danielle Davy as Judith in ‘Christmas Eve.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

There is a serious argument in the undercurrent of this play, one that Rosnizeck astutely sets up in a video clip at the beginning. Against a backdrop of the Patriot Act, we see President Obama speaking:

I think it’s important to understand that you can’t have 100 percent security and then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.

In the world just after 9/11, those words had a weight that may not seem as germane to a world on the brink in Ukraine. But the argument between Thomas and Judith points to an ongoing global drama and an evergreen conflict of conscience — the rulers of the earth versus what Fanon called the wretched of the earth — making Christmas Eve a work worth seeing well beyond its outstanding ExPats execution.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes with no intermission.

Christmas Eve plays through April 10, 2022, presented by ExPats Theatre performing in Lab II at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 3333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 pm; Sunday matinee at 2:30 pm. Tickets ($20–$40) are available online.

COVID Safety: Vaccination proof or negative test result and mask-wearing are required.

CHRISTMAS EVE
By Daniel Kehlemann
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Karin Rosnizeck

CAST
Judith: Danielle Davy
Thomas: Stephen Patrick Martin

CREATIVE TEAM
Stage Manager: Laura Schlactmeyer
Scenic Designer: Nadir Bey
Lighting & Projections Designer: Hailey LaRoe
Fight Director: Jon Rubin
Sound Designers: Karin Rosnizeck & Laura Schlachtmeyer

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John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for bringing this drama to our attention! (Although I’m a frequent visitor to the Atlas, I had no idea that this company existed, and look forward to seeing this show as well as subsequent plays they produce.)

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