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Theatre in Review: Is This a Room (Vineyard Theatre)

TL Thompson, Pete Simpson, Emily Davis. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The most suspenseful play currently on the New York stage is a piece of found theatre, drawn from the transcript of the FBI interrogation of the unhappy young woman known as Reality Winner. You may recall the name -- which sounds equally like a character in a John Bunyan allegory or one of the Real Housewives -- if not the case. A former Air Force airman and intelligence specialist, she was indicted in 2017 for leaking to the online news publication The Intercept documents regarding Russian influence in the 2016 American presidential election. Like so many other figures in the tawdry saga of the Trump Administration, she was briefly a cause célèbre, with such strange bedfellows as Julian Assange and Trump himself speaking out on her behalf; to be sure, the latter took up her case largely as another excuse to complain about Hillary Clinton. (The Intercept came under plenty of criticism, too, for its clumsy handling of the story, which left Winner exposed to prosecution.) After a fair amount of legal wrangling, she pled guilty to a single count of felony transmission of national defense information and was sentenced to five years and three months in jail. The ironies are almost too many to count: She broke the law, but her single transgression pointed toward much larger crimes committed by the current administration. That she should spend so much time behind bars seems the very height of injustice.

Is This a Room meticulously recreates the events transcribed in the FBI report: Winner, living in Augusta, Georgia, and doing translations for a firm contracted to the National Security Agency -- she speaks Farsi and Pashto -- is approached in her yard by a trio of agents who detain her while her house is searched. The dialogue couldn't be more banal -- the text records every "um" and "uh" and sentence fragment -- and yet, the tension is all the more unbearable for it. Seeing Winner -- an achingly vulnerable Emily Davis -- struggle to make small talk with these strangers, who shuttle between chatty repartee and veiled threats -- is an authentic white-knuckle experience. This is especially so as her seemingly candid answers begin to crumble. The imbalance of power -- the creeping sense of menace -- is as gripping as in any Harold Pinter play.

Thus, when Garrick, one of the agents, notes that it's "completely voluntary to talk to me," the statement sounds like a trap. He adds, "Now, if you're willing to talk to me, like, to go through just kind of how this started and, you know, get your, your side of it and figure out what's going on here. Okay. Does that sound-sound good to you?" Actually, it doesn't sound good at all, but Winner has little choice but to acquiesce. It's telling that Garrick and Taylor, his partner, keep mentioning a search warrant, and yet it isn't produced until near the play's end. Nobody reads a Miranda warning -- a point that became a bone of contention in her trial -- and clearly nobody intends to. The men understand all too well how, despite their casual manner and false ingratiations, profoundly intimidating they are. (You might find yourself thinking of Pinter's The Birthday Party, in which two mysterious strangers come to spirit the lead character away; their genial thuggery is not unlike that of the characters onstage at the Vineyard.) Each little transaction bristles with an unspoken sense of hazard -- including the agents' questions about where Winner keeps her guns and her recent quick trip to Belize, an event that is clearly regarded with suspicion.

Winner tries to play along, but her nerves constantly get the better of her: Note the nervous laughs that accompany many of her statements, and her halting, incomplete answers. As the agents press her, she turns away from them, looking downward, speaking slowly, and calculating her next move; she is an animal watching a cage being erected around her. At the same time, she has no idea what happens next, and the men are not forthcoming. When her phone is taken away, she says, "I didn't want to make any assumptions or anything like that, but I am teaching yoga tomorrow and [the] phone has music on it," a line that conveys her deep anxiety about the possibility of arrest. The owner of a cat and foster caregiver for a dog, she finally says, near tears, that her main concern is "my ability to keep these two animals alive."

Watching Is This a Room, one experiences a kind of ghastly, but gripping, double vision. It is pretty obvious from the get-go that Winner is guilty, and the agents are, of course, only doing their jobs. Then again, the obvious power imbalance between them is infuriating, to say nothing of their soulless stabs at humanity, via bad jokes and conversational asides. Furthermore, whatever you want to say about the legality of Winner's acts, her real crime is acting like a citizen. She didn't give aid and comfort to America's enemies; she helped to lay bare the corruption of the electoral system. How is it that she is behind bars while ethical and legal violations pile up in the White House and Republican Congressmen stage childish rumbles to block the investigative process?

In addition to Davis, who is increasingly heartbreaking as Winner realizes that the game is up, Pete Simpson and TL Thompson are perfectly skin-crawling as Garrick and Taylor. As another agent, known as Unknown Male, who directs the search of Winner's house, Becca Blackwell is, if anything, even more sinister, offering out-of-left-field comments. Tina Satter's handling of the cast is faultless -- she also conceived the production -- and her use of certain theatrical techniques, such as blackouts that cover up the censored parts of the text and sequences of slightly slowed-down and sped-up dialogue, serve to underline the surreal nature of the action.

Parker Lutz's uncluttered set, with some audience members seated upstage of the action, works well; when the action shifts to an empty room in Winner's house, the absence of furniture adds to the tension: Winner is forced to stand, awkwardly, in stage pictures cannily arranged to indicate that she has nowhere to go. Thomas Dunn's lighting casts a stark atmosphere, and the sound design, by Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada, runs the gamut from offstage dog barks to unsettling, deep booms that punctuate the action. Enver Chakartash's costumes have a gritty reality that is right for the characters.

There's nothing shapely or structured about Is This a Room, but it has an immediacy that is absent from many new plays. In addition to its more obviously nerve-wracking qualities, it raises ugly questions about the direction in which our democracy is headed. Don't see it if you want to feel soothed. -- David Barbour

(25 October 2019)

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