Two days before the opening night of The Angry Brigade, a terrorist drove a car through a crowd near the British Parliament, killing several and injuring dozens. The tragedy significantly raised the stakes of Third Rail's American premiere of the 2014 English play: The Angry Brigade was a radical leftist organization that orchestrated a series of non-fatal bombings in London between 1970 and 1972.
But liberation, not terrorism, is the play's real concern. The brigade's bombings were an attempt to "wake up" society from everyday life, an endless toil for wages and rent to fulfill insatiable wants fed to us through pop culture.
The first half follows Scotland Yard's search for the Angry Brigade, and the second half follows the brigade itself. It's a fast-moving play delivered with charismatic performances by a cast of four actors who hurtle through an array of characters that range from absurdly hilarious to deeply compelling. The soundtrack includes the Sex Pistols, the Clash and Stiff Little Fingers, all of which were preceded by the real-life Angry Brigade by at least three years, but it feels entirely appropriate and only adds to the play's enticing aesthetic.
Smith (Nick Ferrucci) is a recently promoted, overly polite detective who's been tasked with leading the search for the Brigade. Smith and his team of three are far from radicals, but compared to the higher-up who assigns Smith the job (Ben Tissel)—a mustachioed man who thinks dunking a biscuit into his tea is an act of rebellion—they're the best chance Scotland Yard has of getting into the minds of the anarchists.
As their investigation progresses, Smith and his crew become seduced by the philosophy of the enemy. Their office in Scotland Yard's basement becomes disheveled, ties are taken off and shirt tails are left untucked. By the end, Smith is wide-eyed and leaping across overturned tables. "It's good to see a fire in your belly, blood running through your veins," Albert (Tissell), an anarchist and one of the team's sources, menacingly tells Smith.
But the life that Smith and crew gain seems lacking in the four anarchists themselves. In the second half of the play, the faceless terror looming over Act One materializes as four disillusioned university dropouts. The set that was formerly a Scotland Yard office has been transformed into a barely furnished flat with busted-up walls.
Anna (Kerry Ryan) and Jim (Tissell) stand in the middle of the rubble around a toilet—Jim's just destroyed the bathroom walls in protest of social constructs. Along with Hilary (Quinlan Fitzgerald) and John (Ferrucci), they sardonically act out commercials and share their life experiences that caused their disgust with life's complicit patterns. Jim's mom ironed his dad's shirts every night while he sat around, "fat off of meals she made him." Hilary once looked up into the windows of a multistory housing complex and noticed that two men were sitting in their separate apartments tuned in to the same TV show.
They sleep on the floor and wear dirty clothes, and everyone has sex with everyone. Except for Anna. She finds the rigid structures of everyday life frustrating, but she also yearns for the kind of comforts normalcy provides—tea pots, a partner who cares only for her—and she doesn't want anyone to get hurt in the brigade's attempt to dismantle society. Ryan's performance gracefully encompasses that tension: Anna's trapped by an ideology meant to be liberating.
What makes The Angry Brigade (and many of Third Rail's other productions this season) so supremely imaginative is the creative team's willingness to try to comprehend something simply for the purpose of experiential discovery, and not in the service of some end like morality. But for viewers who, like Smith, become startled by just how much they find the Angry Brigade's severity tempting, Anna's struggle is far more comforting than the literal prison where the brigade ends up: For the four anarchists, there's no going back.
SEE IT: The Angry Brigade plays at Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8 Ave., thirdrailrep.org. 7:30 Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, through April 15. $25-$42.50.