Sometimes you can tell that a production will be good from the opening moment.
Such is the case in Jonathan Spector’s “In From the Cold,” a Just Theater world premiere. The lights come up in media res: grumpy, Russian-born father Ivan (aka “Howard Johnson,” played with gusto and deep and varying emotional levels by Julian López-Morillas) stands poised above his all-American son, Alex (Seton Brown, a delightfully nebbishy Everyman, or perhaps Everyson), who is seated. Hand extended, Ivan is offering Alex a gun. “No!” shouts Alex. “Dad, I can’t take a gun to school!”
It’s a funny, absurd opening tableau that instantly piques your interest, and which clearly indicates the play is firing on all cylinders. An excellent ensemble cast, sharp-eyed director Christine Young and the playwright (also Just Theater’s co-artistic director) achieve a precise balance of drama and farce throughout.
Ivan is a former Cold War spy, an army bureaucrat who was a double agent of sorts, but with wildly idealistic goals. Forced to flee the Soviet Union, he is now obsessively paranoid, convinced his former KGB colleagues are aiming to — slight spoiler alert ahead — kill his son.
He apparently has good reason to believe this, but is he a reliable witness?
For his part, Alex, who recently returned home (from living in Japan) in order to care for his presumably ailing father, is baffled and frustrated by Ivan’s controlling behavior.
Just starting a new job, as a substitute history teacher in his alma mater high school, Alex is busy reconnecting with two old classmates: hang-loose underachiever Damian (Harold Pierce, hilariously hyper and likable) and Carrie (an engaging and idiosyncratic Sarah Moser), a teacher at the high school who used to date Alex’s older brother.
David Sinaiko completes the pitch-perfect cast, playing several small roles with his usual comic verve.
Spector’s plot is tight and engrossing, and his characters are distinctive, but he has a broader agenda, too: By way of Alex’s lectures to his clueless students, interwoven into the action, Spector presents a carefully crafted view of modern history as revealed in popular movies from the 1980s (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Back to the Future,” “The Karate Kid”).
He also examines, through the character of the tormented, out-of-touch father, the personal cost of committing to political ideals.
In From the Cold
Presented by: Just Theater
Where: Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shatuck Ave., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 23
Tickets: $22 to $25
Contact: (510) 214-3780, www.justtheater.org