It's been observed that a person can fool a lie detector by simply believing his own lies. This may also explain how Dick Cheney can go on Sunday talk shows and claim he never said what a videotape shows him saying. For most of us, that blissful state of extreme self-delusion is not accessible, which is why we tend to sweat bullets if we prevaricate.
There are falsehoods aplenty in Pack of Lies, a play by Hugh Whitemore now being given a superb rendering by Cesear's Forum. Based on a real spy case in 1960s Britain, it traces the story of Barbara and Bob Jackson, simple London suburbanites who are suddenly thrust into a cold war espionage dustup. The intrigue involves their best friends and neighbors for five years, Helen and Peter Kroger, who, unbeknownst to the Jacksons, are KGB agents.
In the first act, the playwright fashions a credible friendship between the Jacksons and the Krogers, who say they're from Canada. Helen Kroger, boisterous and effusive, is the flip side of placidly passive Barbara, but it's easy to see how the two women could forge a bond of trust and confidentiality. But that connection is ripped asunder when Stewart, a Brit intelligence officer, arrives to set up a stakeout in the Jacksons' house, where he and his minions can spy on the spies across the street.
At first, Barbara rebels against this intrusion. But she gives in, then begins disintegrating as she watches her sole meaningful friendship disappear into a fog of deceit. By intercutting dialogue scenes with mini-soliloquies from various characters, including Stewart's assistant and the Jacksons' teenage daughter Julie, playwright Whitemore creates a fascinating portrait of a quiet, predictable life gone horribly wrong.
Director Greg Cesear brings beautifully modulated performances out of his talented cast. As Barbara, Julia Kolibab starts out prim and flat as a steam-ironed tablecloth, but she gets progressively rumpled as the lies she is forced to tell toss her neat existence into disarray. Paul Floriano is sublimely understated as Stewart, using his soft voice like a velvet garrote to strangle the life out of Barbara as he simply goes about his business. When Barbara comments, "I never know how much to believe" in regard to Helen, Floriano's "Ahh" in response speaks volumes.
Juliette Regnier brings welcome humor to her portrayal of the bumptious Helen, even getting tipsy at a holiday party. Unfortunately, the script doesn't allow Regnier to develop more facets to this clearly intricate and morally conflicted individual. As ineffectual but loving Bob, Steven Hoffman is totally believable, as is Jennifer Mae Hoffman's feisty Julie. In a small role as Stewart's assistant spook, Alanna Romansky nails her character in just a few lines.
Curiously, we expect governments to lie, but not our friends. This subtle play goes beyond its international-spy-thriller trappings to ask a profound question: Is real friendship based on truth or appearances? According to Pack of Lies, that question is perhaps best left unanswered.