East Berlin, 1950. Elsa (Anna Katarina) returns from Munich to search for her foster father. She is arrested as an American spy. A prison interrogator (Allan Miller) sets out to find what she knows.
That's the premise for "Days and Nights Within" at the Back Alley Theatre, and drama would seem to be built into it. Playwright Ellen McLaughlin certainly seems to think so. Her aim is to celebrate Elsa as both the victim and the victor of a dehumanizing process, which we are perfectly willing to do, especially in Katarina's sympathetic portrayal.
But do we really see the process in action? The interrogator's announced strategy is to bring his client to a point where she confesses out of a sense that "we are all prisoners," and Miller and Katarina do their best as actors to make this their journey through the play.
But the text of the play doesn't really substantiate the journey. "Days and Nights Within" needs more sustained scenes where something actually happens between interrogator and suspect, and fewer of Elsa's poetic meditations and (especially) surreal nightmares.
The ending is meant as an ironic victory for Elsa. If she has been driven to a point where she will confess anything, her revelations have no objective value to the interrogator. But as Miller plays him--and it's hard to imagine playing him any other way--he is the victor, having broken down his prey.
A program note from director Michael Pressman sees Elsa as having conquered the situation through love, but as far as we can see Elsa ends up insane. This is not the same state as being blessed--although Katarina, yielding to the text, plays it that way.
It's a play that could use some hard thinking. Pressman's production is well-crafted. Prison sets are often dull, but designer Rich Rose came up with the idea of putting Elsa's cell and the interrogator's office on two "islands," with a fissure between them--an emblem of division that's not taken too far.
Leslie Rose and Ken Lennon's lighting also adds variety, but nothing can be done about the number of light-fades in the script, a sure-fire way to encourage viewer fatigue. The play lasts little more than an hour, but it's easy to feel, with Elsa, that years are going by in the outside world.
'DAYS AND NIGHTS WITHIN'
Ellen McLaughlin's play, at the Back Alley Theatre. Director Michael Pressman. Producer Laura Zucker. Set Rich Rose. Lighting Leslie Rose. Costume Sylvia Moss. Sound Jerry Sider. With Allan Miller and Anna Katarina. Plays Wednesdays-Sundays at 8 p.m, with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m.. Tickets $13-$15. 15231 Burbank Blvd., Van Nuys. 818/780-2240.