The Cold War may be over, but its quirkier manifestations linger in the mind.
At least they do for Max Brinks, a gay man who has an odd little tale to tell us about his brief career as an American spy in "Intelligence," the contrived but clever and haunting new play by Seattle writer Scot Augustson.
It seems that after an embarrassing arrest in a men's public washroom, the baleful New Yorker, Max (played by Peter Sorensen), was given a choice. Either he could go to jail for his "indecent" deed. Or he could take orders from a beefy, leering spymaster, Duncan Mars (Pete McBryan) to seduce a visiting Russian nuclear physicist - and try to pry state secrets out of him.
The situation is patently absurd, of course, even for the politically paranoid, deeply homophobic 1950's. What government agent would trust a hapless schmo like Max with a sensitive mission like this?
But Augustson is a sly writer, with an impish awareness of the slippery nature of role-playing. And what promises at first to be merely a chatty, preposterous anecdote, peppered with hit-and-miss wisecracks by an irritatingly fey narrator, develops into a suggestively ambiguous puzzle - a gay twist on John LeCarre.
In the Annex Theatre's world premiere production, Keri Healey's swift, fluent staging of the many-scened, 90-minute one-act benefits much from the arrival of actor Patrick Sexton.
His portrayal of the evidently shy, dorky scientist Sergei Aramov is note-perfect. He has Sergei's thickly accented, stumbling English and sagging posture down pat, as well as his naive delight in the sexual affair that quickly blossoms between him and Max.
But as Sorensen's more stilted Max advises, "This isn't a love story." And Sergei may be too much the American fantasy of a greenhorn Russian to be true.
A good deal of this play's potency is vested in a surprising coda which makes you re-think just about everything that's come before. Suffice it to say that Auguston's take on the strange, fleeting relationship he conjures is resolutely unsentimental - as is his snapshot of New York homosexual life in the pre-Stonewall, pre-gay liberation era.
"Intelligence" isn't all brains and no heart, however. In unexpected ways it gets you wondering if in "chilly" times, it is sometimes a charade that best expresses the yearnings of the true self.
"Intelligence" plays Thursday-Sunday through July 15 at Annex Theatre, 1916 Fourth Ave., Seattle. $7-12. 206-728-0933.