Review: Provocative moments unfold in smart drama ‘The Interview’

In Susan Josephs’ new play, “The Interview,” premiering at Studio/Stage, couples must apply to the “U.S. Department of Parenting and Child Welfare” for permission to have children.

Like so many nightmares of government control such as “1984” and “Logan’s Run,” this one is arresting, dramatically fruitful and not entirely implausible.

Josephs fleshes out her dystopia -- which, it is implied, arose from a movement among mommy bloggers -- with deft details: Eating junk food while pregnant is now against the law; every baby must be “Ferberized” (using the sleep-training method of Dr. Richard Ferber, the real author of a popular book on childcare).

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We first meet Jenna (Jacqueline King) and Steven (Marshall McCabe) before their final interview, mutually affectionate and perfectly dressed (in costumes by Lauren Wyenn).

Director Diana Wyenn boldly positions the waiting room upstage, behind a low wall, so that the actors start with their backs to the audience; even so, their anxiety is palpable, even infectious, as they fill the time with banal, upbeat remarks.

Their interviewer, Veronica (Melissa Sullivan), finally invites them downstage, into her office. Sullivan, a mesmerizing performer, has the smug chilliness of a gatekeeper down perfectly, and the couple dutifully recites the right answers. But something isn’t quite right. Veronica makes a provocative remark; Jenna reveals a stubborn streak; Steven alone remains weirdly committed to playing out what seems increasingly like a farce.

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The psychodrama that follows not only hinges on an involved back story but is also a bit talky: With each twist, characters are shown exhaustively arguing themselves and each other into previously inconceivable choices.

A weak subplot involving bulimia is introduced and then dismissed when it would impede a neat resolution. Set changes are entertaining — Vincent Richards’ modular pieces fit together cleverly in a variety of arrangements, and a TV screen showing Hind Bin Demaithan’s video design concisely locates each new scenario — but whenever two characters are left on a darkened stage together as the lights come up elsewhere they pace, glaring at each other, in distracting circles.

Overall the smart drama entertains: Wyenn fosters an understated style that softens the spikier plot developments, and the performances, particularly Sullivan’s, engage even when they don’t entirely convince.

“The Interview,” Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Ends October 27. $20 online; $25 at the door. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.