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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Daniel Kehlemann
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Karin Rosnizeck
Judith: Danielle Davy
Thomas: Stephen Patrick Martin
Stage Manager: Laura Schlactmeyer
Scenic Designer: Nadir Bey
Lighting & Projections Designer: Hailey LaRoe
Fight Director: Jon Rubin
Sound Designers: Karin Rosnizeck & Laura Schlachtmeyer