Kate Tarker’s new thriller “Montag,” which opened Tuesday at Off Broadway’s Soho Rep, is one of those plays that opens in darkness — both literal and metaphorical — and only gradually reveals its narrative intentions.
Rest assured, in the final few minutes of this 80-minute show Tarker sheds actual light on her sometimes confusing and deliberately muddled plot (the lighting design is by Masha Tsimring) so that the pieces do finally come together. But it can sometimes be a slog before we get to that moment.
First, we are plunged into a darkened basement where two women have holed up to escape some ominous outside threat that is only gradually revealed. Faith (Ariana Venturi) is a systems analyst for the U.S. military on a nearby base in Germany, and Novella (Nadine Malouf) is a woman of Turkish descent whose children go to school with Faith’s — though the children are absent from the basement, squirreled away in some other location with a 21-year-old babysitter, which only deepens the mystery about the danger they feel they are facing.
Faith and Novella are seven days into their self-imposed hiding — and they have gone a bit loopy from sleep deprivation and constant vigilance. Between breaks for coffee, cigarettes and manic bursts of dancing or calisthenics, they’re given to shouting to pass the time. Venturi and Malouf strike up a good onstage rapport, exploring the ebbs and flows of female friendship, though they sometimes play to emotional extremes that leave them few options to scale back.
The actresses’ work, under Dustin Wills’ direction, is enormously helped by Lisa Laratta’s stunningly claustrophobic set and Sinan Refik Zafar’s sound design that reveal new layers as the plays progresses. Indeed, the duo’s mental strain takes increasingly hallucinatory turns as the show progresses — and Wills’ production captures that mood with some jaw-dropping theatrical devices.
While Wills delivers not one but several visual coups de theatre in the show’s second half, the moments that stand out are the quieter, more human touches — as when one character tries to untrample some flowers in a garden bed. It’s a revealing sign of how even in a world gone crazy, we keep feeling the tug to try to restore some order.