Anne Washburn's play The Internationalist, now at the Studio Theatre's intimate Milton Theater in Washington, is a comedy built around a single joke – a brilliant joke, it's true, but one that still isn't strong enough to power a two-act play. Director Kirk Jackson and his accomplished ensemble cast keep the momentum going for as long as they can.
As Lowell (Tyler Pierce), an American traveling on business, arrives in an unidentified eastern European country after 15 hours on a plane, the other cast members work together to turn him from crisply dressed and confident to bedraggled and exhausted-looking. (Removing Lowell's suit jacket and jumping up and down on it is a nice touch.) The first employee he meets is Sara (Tonya Beckman Ross), who is fluent in English; Lowell assumes that their shared language will lead to more personal connections, but that outcome isn't at all certain. When she tells him, "People are always more appealing when they're unintelligible," he thinks she's being witty.
Washburn puts the audience into the same disoriented position as Lowell by inventing her own language for the people with whom he is working. When he isn't present, the other employees speak English and the audience can understand them, but they switch to gibberish the minute the American walks in. The effect is humorous as well as theatrically effective, but it becomes less of each the longer it goes on.
Part of the problem here is that Washburn is so busy keeping Lowell, and the audience, off balance that she doesn't allow much development over the course of the play. Scenes start and finish abruptly, and everything stops dead at the end with no explanation.
Because of the structure of the play and its use of language, the actors have to create broad characterizations to be effective, and so they are: Holly Twyford, frazzled and fierce; overbearing Cameron McNary; skittish Jason Lott; and James Konicek in two roles, the polished boss and a furtive, nervous employee with an incongruous English accent.
Debra Booth's clever minimalist design, enhanced by Michael Giannitti's sharply targeted lighting, uses sliding photographic panels to create a succession of scenes.