by John Stoltenberg

Hootenanny by Monique LaForce is a two-hander with an unsettling story up its sleeve. It’s a story about a man and a woman that incrementally builds nerve-fraying psychological tension from what seems the slightest, most innocuous of encounters.

Two actors, Chip and Samantha (capably acted by Doug Krehbel and Cate Brewer), meet in the nondescript green room of a theater where they play bit parts in a show within the play called Hootenanny.

The off-stage “on-stage” show, which is going on at the same time, is a musical version of the Scottish play set improbably to bluegrass music. Chip plays the Thane of Cawdor and Samantha plays Lady Macbeth, and they have a wait on their hands between scenes. We hear bits of a banjo-accompanied witches’ song, the bouncy hook of which is “Trouble, trouble, trouble,” and I caught a chuckle-worthy reference to hand-washing as “OCD.” But notwithstanding the brief, very pleasant prerecorded original music composed and performed by Dead Men’s Hollow, the made-up Macmusical is so incidental to Chip and Samantha’s green-room encounter as to be almost random. Because the real drama turns not on Shakespeare or singing but on stalking, seduction, and surrender.

As the character of Chip was revealed, I was reminded of the old-time theater idiom “stage-door Johnny”—a man so enamored of a particular actress or showgirl that he waits relentlessly at the stage door in hopes of catching her attention and courting her. Chip is a variant: he’s a back-stage Johnny. Unbeknownst to Samantha, he became obsessed with her years ago when they happened to audition together, and ever since he has seen, and/or tried out for a part in, every single show she has been in. And now he has contrived the very chance he has always wanted: to be alone with Samantha at last.

Why Samantha doesn’t get the hell out of that green room once she knows of his stalker past, and why instead she seems not to mind his amorous attention, is a little hard to fathom. But as written Samantha is a bit of a naïf. She’s not a dumb blonde exactly but she’s certainly dim. From the get-go she doesn’t get a lot of Chip’s banter. He’s quicker-witted than she by a factor of about twelve (an unexpected character contrast for a play in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival).

Samantha is spending her off-stage time memorizing a scene for an audition for a role she hopes to get in a pilot. Chip, though stung to learn she’s thinking of leaving the show they’re in, offers to run lines with her. She agrees.

The scene  they read is between Becka, a high-power attorney (the part would be a stretch for Samantha), and Nigel. As we hear it played, subtle parallels echo the inscrutable subtext going on between Samantha and Chris. More role-playing, initiated by Chip, ensues, including a contest coming up with pickup lines. She does okay (“Are you needing a map because you got lost in my eyes?”), but he’s a real pro (Chip after crossing the stage in front of her: “Do you believe in love at first sight, or should I walk by again?”).

At a point in their often funny role-playing, Samantha admits to Chip that she cannot cry on cue. He suggests such tricks of the trade as rubbing onion near one’s eyes. He seems to have her best interests at heart. He seems to support her in her professional ambitions. But there comes a twist. And little does Samantha know in what part in what sexual script he has cast her.

Director Catherine Aselford has done a good job of modulating the interplay of light and dark shadings in LaForce’s play. Both Krehbel and Brewer have very agreeable stage presences. The character of Chip, for instance, is written far creepier than Krehbel plays him. And Samantha as written is far more of an emotional doormat than Brewer plays her. Their artful underplaying turns out to be an asset, such that the play’s perturbing reverberations sneak up on us.

Running Time: 55 minutes with no intermission.

Hootenanny played through October 10, 2015, at Guillotine Theatre performing at The National Museum of Women and the Arts and will have two more performances at The Receiving Vault at the Ivy Hill Cemetery, 2823 King Street, Alexandria, VA 22302, at 3 pm October 17 and 18. Tickets are available online.