On Theater: Gripping Cold War drama at NTAC

Were Hugh Whitemore's "Pack of Lies" merely a work of fiction, detailing a manufactured anecdote from the Cold War, it would be engrossing enough. However, the events portrayed in this haunting episode are, in fact, true, which heightens the play's impact considerably.

Now on stage at the Newport Theatre Arts Center, "Pack of Lies" rewinds history a half century, focusing on a normal English family in the early 1960s, whose placid life becomes shattered when they learn that their neighbors — in fact, their closest friends — may be Soviet spies. Moreover, they must provide accommodations for government agents to monitor these friends' activities.

Preposterous? Outrageous? These and other comments are offered by the unwilling host family, but the operation goes forward, taking its toll on both friendships and familial bonds. Whitemore spins a compelling yarn and director Sharyn Case has mounted a mesmerizing production.

Light and folksy at the outset, as the amity between the two couples is established, the mood turns grim and foreboding with the arrival of a government agent bent on recruiting the family's upstairs room for purposes of counterespionage. All this cloak-and-dagger activity takes a predictable toll on the host couple and their teenage daughter.

At Newport, the circuitous plot is carried off splendidly with a strong and capable cast navigating some tricky dramatic waters, masking suspicion with overt friendliness. In the process, some excellent performances emerge.

Chief among these is that of Toni Beckman as the English mother caught in this ever-encroaching web, which seems to tighten even as she struggles against it. She and her more rational husband, solidly enacted by Vince Campbell, uneasily project this unwelcome duality, suppressing the urge to alert their good friends to the trap.

As the targeted neighbors, Harriet Whitmyer and Frank Moran bring warmth and sincerity to their characters — particularly Whitmyer, whose effusive personality overwhelms her friends and whose charm and likability render it difficult to imagine her very different agenda.

A notably human element is the richly passionate portrayal of the couple's daughter by Jasmine O'Hea, heart-rending in its volatility. This bright-eyed teen actress enriches the production with her brutal honesty as her parents continue with their enforced deception.

The affably officious government agent who concocts the charade is skillfully rendered by David Colley, who manages to manipulate with a velvet hand. His assistant, who spies on the neighbors from an upstairs room, is played with an unexpected warmth by Cat McGowan.

Andrew Otero's interior setting seems to enlarge the stage dimensions of NTAC (though why there would be only two kitchen chairs in a home occupied by three people remains a puzzlement). The main room reflects a drab, lived-in feeling which bolsters the atmosphere.

The situations portrayed in "Pack of Lies" may appear more suited to a "Mission: Impossible" plot, yet, as the program states, "the main events are true." It's a compelling moment in history, recreated by a sterling cast at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

TOM TITUS covers local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Pack of Lies"

Where: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. Sundays until Feb. 26 (one Saturday matinee is billed for 2 p.m. on Feb. 25)

Cost: $16

Call: (949) 631-0288; or go to http://www.ntaconline.com/

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