People generally don’t attend a Broadway show expecting to become flushed with anxiety. But it’s hard to watch the documentary drama “Is This A Room” without beginning to feel a little tense.
The play is a reenactment of the initial FBI interrogation of Reality Winner, an Air Force veteran who was jailed for leaking classified information about Russian attempts to manipulate the 2016 election. The information was published by The Intercept and Winner later pleaded guilty to one count of felony transmission of national defense information.
The play, conceived and directed with a laser-like precision by Tina Satter, uses the verbatim transcript of the interrogation as its dialogue — there are no attempts to heighten the drama by editing or rewriting the encounter. Still, it’s hard not to feel an innate, squirm-inducing sympathy for Winner, played with luminous transparency by Emily Davis, as she faces fusillades of questions from three FBI agents.
With its glaring lighting (by Thomas Dunn) and scenery-less set (by Parker Lutz), the play’s stark, even harshly straightforward representation of a young woman undergoing what must have been a harrowing ordeal is downright chilling, however you may feel about Winner’s actions. We almost seem to be uncomfortably squeezed into her high-top sneakers. It’s an unsettling feeling, and indeed “Is This A Room” is an unsettling play, which Broadway could certainly use more of.
Much of the play’s effectiveness derives from Davis’s utterly natural yet entirely extraordinary performance, for which she won both an Obie Award and a Lucille Lortel Award for the Off Broadway production at the Vineyard Theater. Davis bears a certain resemblance to Winner, but that’s incidental. What gives her performance such quiet force is the manner in which she renders the character’s shifting and conflicting emotions, and the racing mind beneath the placid exterior, as the interrogation proceeds.
When she arrives home from a grocery run to discover a pair of FBI agents outside her house, Reality reacts matter-of-factly, radiating what seems a natural innocence and hominess. “Oh my goodness,” she replies, when informed that the agents are investigating a “possible mishandling of classified information.” (Who says “Oh my goodness” these days?)
Initially, and almost comically, their discussion focuses on rather mundane matters: What to do with the groceries? Who or what might be in the house the agents will search? People? None. Guns? Several. A cat that Reality assures them will scuttle under the bed. Also a rescue dog who isn’t too fond of men. After the dog is safely put in the backyard — in one of the play’s few light moments, we see a stuffed animal being carted across the stage — the agents, Garrick (Pete Simpson) and Taylor (Will Cobbs), occasionally joined by a third, unnamed male agent (Becca Blackwell), begin circling around the explosive topic at hand — and circling around Reality herself.
She is almost desperately polite, responding to their questions with the eager geniality of, well, a man-friendly puppy. “I want to make this as easy for you guys as possible,” she says, ingratiatingly. Yet Davis makes subtly clear that this attitude masks a growing unease and a sense that these men have suddenly taken control of her life.
Reality’s denials of their accusations, which are first general, then specific, grow more faltering, but even then Davis underscores Reality’s instinctive desire to do anything to placate these men. And yet she never breaks down into hysterics or gives off visible signs of fear, even as the agents bear down upon her with an almost menacing physicality, making this harmless-looking young woman look like an animal trapped in a cage. The staging involves a bit of editorializing on Satter’s part, but it unquestionably enhances the play’s dramatic intensity by drawing us more intimately into the terrifying vortex of what Reality’s experience must have been like.
Still, “Is This A Room” doesn’t quite reach a 10 on the dramatic intensity scale. Theatergoers should know what they are in for: a play that, while just 65 minutes, never diverges from its quotidian dialogue, full of stops and starts and stray words, or rises to anything resembling overt conflict. But this is, paradoxically, its strength: Histrionics are not the point here; presenting a small but disturbing slice of history, as truthfully as possible, is.
For the play does implicitly question the FBI’s methods and morals. While Simpson infused his Agent Garrick with an almost folksy, even fatherly friendliness, and Cobbs imbues his with a similar easygoing manner that gradually grows cooler, one may question whether having three older male agents interrogate a young woman is not an intentionally aggressive, sexist method of gaining information.
And what’s redacted from the transcript of the interrogation also raises disturbing questions. Whenever a character speaks about the specifics of the charges, the play’s dialogue stops cold and a short, metallic blare is heard. Going in without any knowledge of Winner’s story, you wouldn’t know that in sending the document to a reporter, she was attempting to shed light on improprieties in the 2016 election — fundamentally a patriotic act.
It is one of the play’s ironies —or maybe history’s — that subsequent government investigations would prove the truth she was trying to reveal. And it’s probably not a coincidence that Winner was the first “leaker” prosecuted by the Trump administration; Trump spent endless time railing against the idea that Russia had somehow helped him.
But the play’s most memorable aspect is the behavior of Reality herself, as portrayed with such grace by Davis. Even as the walls seem to close in on her, and she eventually admits to the charges, she retains — and Davis radiates — an almost preternatural calm, fortitude and simple humanity. The only time she displays even a hint of overt emotion is when she realizes she may not be coming home again soon, and says that her only worry is “my ability to keep these two animals alive.” It’s a moment of acute poignancy in a play that, both in substance and style, rigorously eschews them.
The response from Agent Taylor is superficially sympathetic, but also chilling. “Uh, we’re not going to leave these animals, I promise you,” he says. Another bleak irony announces itself: They seem to care more about the welfare of Reality’s pets than they do about the woman herself.
“Is This A Room” opened at the Lyceum Theatre on Oct. 11, 2021.
Review photo: Chad Batka.
Creative: Conceived by Tina Satter; Original music by Sanae Yamada; Directed by Tina Satter; Scenic Design by Parker Lutz; Costume Design by Enver Chakartash; Lighting Design by Thomas Dunn; Sound Design by Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada; Puppet Design by Amanda Villalobos.
Producers: Dori Berinstein, Sally Horchow, Matt Ross, Una Jackman & Jay Alix, Elizabeth Armstrong, Jane Dubin, Horchow Family Productions, Thomas Kail, Corinne Nevinny & Victoria Nevinny, Plate Spinner Productions, Bill Prady, Rocco Productions, Craig Balsam, Randy Best/Diamond Dog Entertainment, Gould Family/David Lyons, Richard Phillips/ZKM Media, The Shubert Organization and Vineyard Theatre.
Cast: Emily Davis, Becca Blackwell, Will Cobbs and Pete Simpson.
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