As co-artistic director of Berkeley’s Just Theater, Jonathan Spector (along with Molly Aaronson-Gelb) has displayed a knack for bringing dazzlingly inventive and intricate new plays to the Bay Area, including Anne Washburn’s I Have Loved Strangers, in 2007, and Rob Handel’s A Maze, last year. So when I heard that Just Theater’s latest show would be the world premiere of a play by Spector himself, I was curious to see how that taste would carry over into his own writing. In from the Cold is a much simpler story than the aforementioned plays. Inspired by true-life events surrounding a man who lived across from Spector’s high school, the play depicts the quiet suburban life of a former Cold War spy who’s become convinced someone’s out to get him.
It all takes place in Martin Flynn’s slightly tacky wood-paneled basement set, cluttered with board games, VHS tapes (but no TV) and obsolete computer parts. The room is so stuck in the 1980s that it’s a surprise when iPhones and other markers of the present day start to play into the story.
That’s appropriate, because nearly everyone in the play is stuck in the ’80s in one way or another. Ivan (Julian López-Morillas, who amusingly combines mounting distress with a forced attempt to appear casual) is a former Russian functionary who secretly spied for the United States and now lives unconvincingly under the American alias Howard Johnson. When subtle events – such as a mysterious birthday card – convince him that the former KGB is threatening much-belated revenge, he looks for help from his CIA contacts (all portrayed by David Sinaiko with cynically calculated chumminess).
Howard’s attempts to beef up his security are constantly thwarted by his nominally adult son. Amiably aimless Alex (Seton Brown), who’s crashing in the basement, can’t be bothered to turn on the alarm or check in with his dad about changing plans, no matter how much Howard pleads. But Alex can’t be bothered to do much. Adrift after some time living in Japan, Alex seems to play everything by ear. By day he’s a chronically unprepared substitute teacher; by night he gets drunk with old high school classmates. Tasked with teaching history, he gives lengthy lectures on classic ’80s teen movies, and his hilarious sociological analyses of flicks like Back to the Future and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off are easily the best part of the play.
If Alex has a saving grace, it’s that his friends seem to have their acts together even less than he does. Harold Pierce’s entertainingly clueless Damian still lives like a teenager, smoking and drinking cheap beer and playing in a garage band. A manager at the local Chili’s, his main concern seems to be the power politics of sleeping with waitresses. Sarah Moser is endearingly quirky as a flirtatious fellow teacher who used to go out with Alex’s dead brother and is clearly nostalgic about it.
It’s a strong cast made stronger by Spector’s dialogue and director Christine Young’s staging, which effectively highlights the comical awkwardness of human interaction. By and large In from the Cold works as a comedy – though one shot through with somber themes of loss, sacrifice and the difficulty of letting go. As clever and enjoyable as it is, however, the play sometimes seems as if it’s intended to be funnier. And while there’s a satisfying conclusion to Howard’s story arc, Alex remains as directionless and undefined at the end as he is at the start. Curiously enough for someone we hear from so often, we don’t really get to know him at all.
More than anything, though, what we learn from In from the Cold is that the 1980s were way more insidious than we could possibly have imagined at the time, from the espionage going on behind the scenes to the subliminal themes in seemingly inane pop culture.
In from the Cold runs through November 23, 2014 at Live Oak Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit justtheater.org.
All photos by Cheshire Isaacs.