Picture Ourselves in Latvia is free, with a suggested donation of around ten dollars, and this would be a bargain even if Access Theater didn’t throw in a glass of free wine as an extra incentive. It is a world premiere by a British playwright, Ross Howard, and those still scarred by the chatty silliness of The Village Bike with Greta Gerwig should not be scared off by another new British import, for this play is the real deal: both light and heavy, romantic and cynical, and always bracingly unpredictable. There is barely any set to speak of and the space itself is redolent of an acting school studio, but the play is so unusual and the performers dig into it so greedily that all kinds of moods and atmospheres emerge. It’s an exciting thing to be reminded that all theater needs is words and people to speak them.
Picture Ourselves in Latvia takes place in a sanitarium where the patients, though emotionally volatile, seem much more decent and sensible than the odd and damaged staff. Oliver (Gregory James Cohan) is an orderly with a crush on Margaret Thatcher who still talks longingly of his time fighting for her in the Falklands War. Nurse Whitehall (Amy Lee Pearsall) is secretly in love with Dr. Rupert (Christian Ryan), who is secretly in love with her; after the comically macho but sinister Oliver gives them love advice, they try their best to carry out his sexist strategies. Oliver cruelly tells the hapless Duncan (Andy Nogasky) that the Latvian Anna (Dana Benningfield) is in love with him, but Anna is in love with the even more hapless Martin (Christopher Daftsios).
In trying to describe this play, I realize I’m making it sound much more conventional than it actually is. It seems like a romantic comedy sometimes, but then this recedes and some kind of dangerous political point emerges like the fin of a shark in the water. It’s the kind of play that can transform itself into something else entirely on a dime, as in a wondrous single scene where all of the characters become different versions of themselves on a ship overrun by pirates. All six of the actors are giving fresh, involved, detailed performances, and I fell in love with all their work. Benningfield in particular has an angular physicality and a soulful quality that really fills the space, while Cohan takes the stage, often very humorously, by force. Daftsios and Nogasky ring all kinds of expert comic and poignant changes on their sad sack characters while Pearsall, in perhaps the most complex role, never puts a step wrong. Ryan has the juiciest part, and he’s already doing a lot with it, but I think even more could be made of Dr. Rupert’s confessional blundering. This is a lovely, delicate play given a fine and imaginative production on less than a shoestring, a little miracle that is being generously given away.