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Theatre in Review: Intelligence (Next Door @ NYTW)

Amelia Pedlow, Rachel Pickup, Kaliswa Brewster. Photo: Hunter Canning.

I worry about our playwrights. I really do. Most of the works I've seen in the last few weeks have tackled important issues and asked probing questions, but too often they have been yoked to plots that beggar belief. Whether it was the sex therapy program designed for no one ever in Slave Play, the prison program that puts mortal enemies in the same cell in On Blueberry Hill, or the rehab program in Blue Ridge that is a nest of unlikely entanglements, perfectly good writers are trying so hard to make their points that they threaten to shatter credibility altogether. The latest entry in this believe-it-or-not series is Intelligence; the playwright, Helen Banner, has plenty of the title quality and she certainly knows how to pen a crackling scene or two, but she has constructed one of the winter's murkiest plots, a concoction that is, alternately, too reticent and too fanciful to be taken at face value.

The action is set in a faintly shabby conference room deep in the bowels of the US State Department. A pair of thirtysomething women, Lee and Paige -- both of them midlevel State employees -- have been handpicked for a brief assignment with Sarah, a high-powered political appointee and fast-rising star. Both young ladies are government lifers with bigger ambitions for themselves -- Banner does a nifty job of establishing them as long-running frenemies -- but neither has any idea why they have earned this gig and if it is a reward or a punishment. After all, the job involves the unglamorous task of writing guidelines: "They could have assigned a couple of administrative assistants," Paige grouses.

In breezes Sarah -- tall, rangy, abundantly blonde, and effortlessly glamorous -- bringing plenty of energy, but little clarity. Just to show she can exercise her claws, she turns to Lee, an expert at sucking up, and says by way of introduction, "I recognize you from the Libya meeting last month." After a beat, she adds, "But you said very little. Why was that?" -- thoroughly withering her young acolyte. Then she announces their task: writing "Guidelines for the Resolution of Conflict in Intractable Global Situations. Classified secret. For Foreign Service eyes only. Composed by three smart women. You and you and me, telling everyone else how to encounter the world, even when it's gone bad."

This is a tall order for a two-week time frame, and one immediately suspects that such a document would, in the real world, go through umpteen drafts and committees, but not here. The task is made even more implausible once Sarah's unorthodox working methods are revealed. Not a professional diplomat, she has enjoyed a life of unspecified accomplishment, adding to her laurels the achievement of a pact with a warlord in an unnamed country that appears to be in the Middle East or Northern Africa. However, she wants Lee and Paige to take part in role-playing games, assuming the persona of her violent, crudely masculine negotiating partner, a product of a culture about which they know little or nothing. From these made-up encounters, Sarah insists, they will derive the immutable principles of deal-making in desperate circumstances.

I have never traveled in the same circles as, say, Madeleine Albright or Samantha Power, so I can't be entirely sure, but from the get-go this situation seems to be a pure synthetic. Questions abound: If Sarah has successfully completed her negotiation, why does she need Lee and Paige to recreate it? What are the two younger women supposed to bring to this situation? And would the US government really send this glamorous, swaggering bombshell to negotiate with, say, a rogue Taliban leader or the head of a Libyan militia? Wouldn't the very presence of a super-confident, assertive Western woman be an unproductive provocation? Then again, it's difficult to know, because countries are not named, religions are not specified, and any salient details are left unsaid. The decision to obscure the specifics leaves Banner with plenty of room to maneuver, but it tends to leave the audience in the dark.

The air of unreality that sits over the action like the mist rolling in over Foggy Bottom is ameliorated by some genuinely tense confrontations as it becomes evident that Sarah's peace pact is, at best, shaky and may involve tolerating some truly ghastly episodes of violence against women. Also, why has a member of the department's security force ordered Paige to report back on her meetings with Sarah? Who keeps knocking on the door of the meeting room, only to disappear when it is opened? And why is the department to which the women belong suddenly and without warning gutted by cutbacks?

I'd like to say that all the answers are forthcoming, but just when it looks like Intelligence is going to come off as a twisty, engaging psychological thriller, it trails off into anticlimax. Banner is concerned with vital questions about foreign policy, namely how many crimes does the US accept in the name of regional security; she also works to build a solid case that woman are natively at a disadvantage in vast government bureaucracies. But her very pertinent questions are lost in a thicket of nagging implausibilities and twists that prove to be dead ends.

Until it totally goes around the bend in the last fifteen or twenty minutes, Intelligence is, nevertheless, easy to take, thanks to Jess Chayes' tense direction and the performances of the three-member cast. Kaliswa Brewster makes Lee so sunny and engaging that it's easy to forget that she is a bit of an opportunist, always ready to cut a side deal when one of the trio is out of the room. Amelia Pedlow, who has carved out a career as beleaguered period ingenues in Pride and Prejudice, The Liar, The Metromaniacs, and The Heir Apparent, lends a bracing toughness to the role of Paige. When Lee, gushing about Sarah, says, "She's interesting to me as an example of what confidence in your function can do," Paige responds, "I question that," and Pedlow gives the words the tone of a guillotine falling into place. As Sarah, Rachel Pickup is the Alpha Female to a T, delivering some pretty fruity speeches with such conviction that you believe she is the kind of woman who dominates a room simply by entering it.

The entire production is solidly put together, including Carolyn Mraz's purposely dreary assemblage of wood-panel and assembly-line furniture; a nifty touch is a digital clock showing the time of day in several portions of the world. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's lighting cannily shifts between a naturalistic white wash and more intensely emotional looks featuring varied angles, intensities, and color temperatures. Sophia Choi's costumes neatly differentiate each woman's personal style. The sound designer, Sinan Refik Zafar, paces the action with sequences of electronic percussion.

Banner is definitely a writer to watch, but Intelligence is marred by plot points that assume too much unexpressed exposition and a surfeit of important plot information that apparently exists on a purely need-to-know basis. If this is really how foreign policy is pursued, we're in even a prettier pickle than I imagined. -- David Barbour

(17 January 2019)

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