An inscrutable sense of dread ties together Ion Theater's two one-act plays now on stage in Hillcrest: Sam Holcroft's Edgar & Annabel and Caryl Churchill's Far Away. While the opener, Edgar & Annabel, a spy story with karaoke (am not making that up), survives its inscrutability and even morphs into a suspenseful curiosity piece, the second work, Far Away, which is making its local premiere, never rises above enigmatic.
In the first play, characters who call themselves "Edgar" and "Annabel" are building a high-powered explosive in an English flat that's been bugged. To mute the sound of bomb-making, they and their friends even engage in karaoke singing, making for a show that has its playful moments. Far Away's creep-show theatrics, on the other hand, overwhelm whatever comment about war and survival is being forwarded.
Survival is the thread between the two plays, which, in total, run about an hour and 45 minutes with intermission. In Edgar & Annabel, the survival of "the organization" and its agents is at stake, as well as some unspecified revolt. In Far Away, survival is a grim, apocalyptic prospect for characters who remain mostly undefined. While we care about the occupants of the London flat in Edgar & Annabel, it's fruitless to care about anyone in Far Away. They all might as well be ghosts.
Linda Libby, part of Ion's company, directs both one-acts with ingenuity. She moves the actors in Edgar & Annabel around the little theater space, sometimes to within inches of the audience, in a way that ratchets up the tension. A slow, haunting parade of doomed hat-wearers is Far Away's money moment. You sit there and hope none of them gets within inches of you.
All cast members other than 10-year-old Abby DeSpain appear in both plays, with Robin Christ (as the secret agents' boss and then the sinister matriarch Harper) looming large over each. Zack Bonin and Abby Fields give credence to the young couple's raw nerves and heightening feelings for each other in Edgar & Annabel, while Hanz Enyeart and Christ actually elicit laughs in their paranoid discourse that leads up to Far Away's "huh?" finale.
Too bad karaoke wasn't employed in the second play on the bill—Nine Inch Nails would've been perfect.
Edgar & Annabel and Far Away run through March 29 at BLKBOX Theatre in Hillcrest. $20- $35. iontheatre.com
I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change: A musical series of vignettes about love and relationships. Opens March 14 at Patio Playhouse in Escondido. patioplayhouse.com
Detroit : This Pulitzer Prize finalist has a suburban couple hosting a backyard barbecue for their new neighbors. Things go spectacularly awry. Presented by San Diego Repertory Theatre, it runs through March 16 at the Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza, Downtown. sdrep.org
The Gin Game : Two nursing-home residents engage in psychological warfare as they battle in games of gin rummy. Presented by Talent to aMuse, it runs through March 16 at 10th Avenue Theatre in East Village. talenttoamuse.com
Once Upon a Mattress : A no-good queen bars everyone in the kingdom from getting married until a seemingly impossible test is passed. Presented by Pickwick Players, it runs through March 16 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando. pickwickplayers.net
The School for Lies : A period (17th century) adaptation of Molière's The Misanthrope tells the story of a surly French hater who falls for an acid-tongued young woman. Through March 16 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. northcoastrep.org
The Underground New Play Festival: Five world-premiere works created and produced by UCSD undergrads, presented in two showcases. Runs through March 16 at UCSD's Arthur Wagner Theatre. theatre.ucsd.edu
The Winter's Tale : A king goes kooky with jealousy, suspecting that his pregnant wife has had an affair with his good friend, and orders that his newborn baby girl be abandoned in a faraway location. Through March 16 at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. oldglobe.org
Boys and Girls : West Coast premiere of a play that tracks a couple of years in the lives of two pairs of people who grapple with their relationships and the prospects of same-sex parenthood. Through March 23 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights. diversionary.org
Edgar & Annabel and Far Away : Ion Theatre is producing a double bill of short plays each night through March 29: Edgar & Annabel , a paranoid thriller about a couple of spies, and Far Away , a dystopian, wartime drama set in factory where hats are made for grim purposes. Through March 29 at BLK BOX Theatre in Hillcrest. iontheatre.com
Spring Awakening : That awakening is a sexual one, experienced by young adults in a small German town, set to music by Duncan Sheik. Presented by Cygnet Theatre, it opens runs through April 27 at The Old Town Theatre. cygnettheatre.com
The 39 Steps : This is a return engagement of a comedic, four-actor stage version of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film, as if performed by Monty Python, with lots of allusions to other Hitchcock classics. Presented by Lamb's Players Theatre, it's ongoing at the Horton Grand Theatre, Downtown. lambsplayers.org
Crime Pays : A radio game show with dastardly overtones, served up with dinner, is presented by Mystery Cafe at Imperial House restaurant in Bankers Hill. mysterycafe.net