If only she had paused to consider the consequences. If only she had plotted more carefully. If only she had asked for a lawyer.
Throughout the course of its taut 70 minutes, the remarkable Is This A Room, opening tonight at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, prompts a steady, gut-churning stream of “what ifs” as audiences do exactly what whistleblower Reality Winner did during her 2017 FBI interrogation: We second-guess, we attempt to predict, we consider and reconsider every angle, we panic.
Conceived and directed by Tina Satter and performed by a flawless cast headed by Emily Davis, Is This A Room presents, verbatim and with every hem, haw, cough and stammer, the initial encounter between several FBI agents – FBI men, it seems necessary to point out – and Winner, the 25-year-old Air Force intelligence specialist and translator who leaked a document about Russian tampering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to The Intercept website, a seemingly spontaneous move of conscience that would bring a five-year prison sentence.
First presented Off Broadway in 2019, Is This A Room now becomes one of the more unusual entries in this most unusual Broadway season, a short play that will appear in rotation with another short verbatim docu-drama – Dana H., opening next week – on separate nights at the Lyceum Theatre. One might wonder why the two plays aren’t presented as a single, fuller, double-bill evening, but such thoughts won’t intrude as Is This A Room unspools on stage. The note-perfect production simply leaves no space for extraneous imaginings.
Played out on a mostly barren stage with a platform here and there to suggest the Georgia home and yard where the surprise interrogation and search were conducted, Is This A Room begins with the arrival of the young Miss Winner, dressed in cutoff jeans, a man’s white shirt and yellow Converse high-tops, as she returns from grocery shopping. Waiting for her are FBI agents Garrick (Pete Simpson) and Taylor (Will Cobbs). A third agent (Becca Blackwell) will soon join the group, mysterious and mostly silent, but for now, Garrick and Taylor begin the conversation, the former straining to seem pleasant and casual, the latter more stern and vaguely threatening, a good cop-bad cop dynamic no less terrifying for seeming the stuff of television.
Neither of the men, though, seem overtly hostile, though the forced, awkward verbal pleasantries strike a false tone – both for us in the audience and, we’ve no doubt, for the woman who knows her world is about to crumble. She’s soon informed that the agents are investigating a “possible mishandling” of confidential documents, a charge that Winner initially tries to play off as her overuse of office paper.
As the three engage in a verbal dance that stretches, second by second, to excruciating lengths, the subjects meander from pets and gym routines to what has been hanging in the air since the first minute: Winner is suspected, with seemingly airtight evidence, of downloading a classified military document and mailing it to an investigative journalism website.
The play never specifically names the document or the website, briefly fading to black and silence when the transcript reaches a redaction; the audience will either know – or google later – that Winner sent a document outlining Russian involvement in the 2016 elections to The Intercept, and that she was busted when The Intercept submitted the papers to the FBI for verification, leaving the easily traceable identifying marks on the documents that led directly to Winner.
Leaving out those specific, redacted details proves to be a blessing for Is This A Room (the title derives from a nearly surreal non-sequitur uttered by the mysterious third agent). While the encounter is so firmly and unmistakably rooted in the desperate age of Trump, with references to political polarization, Fox News, corruption and fury, the absence of various specifics gives the play its Kafkaesque horror. Nervous, ever on the verge of tears, desperate to parse her way out of both confession and danger, Davis’ Winner is both particular and universal, an individual who can see the weight of the State dangling overhead and descending inch by inch.
It’s a terrifying predicament, made all the more so by the banality of the circumstances. Everyone in this little game with such high stakes is playing a role, and they know it, and they know the others know it. Winner knows Garrick’s compassion isn’t genuine, or at least uncomplicated, but she goes along with the ruse because really what choice does she have? Taylor is fully aware that Winner’s evasions will come to naught, but he lets them play out until they’ve nowhere to go.
Occasionally guards and pretenses are let down, most vividly depicted in Satter’s movement of her actors across the stage. Davis will occasionally turn away from her interlocutors to face the audience, allowing us to see, for precious seconds, the terror on her face and the tears in her eyes. At other times, the agents will move from their studied, too-casual distances to survey their quarry up close, abandoning all pretense of social niceties.
These shifts in tone are perfectly echoed by Thomas Dunn’s dramatic shifts in lighting, and a sound design by Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada that inspires chills with its moody variations.
Much, though, rests on actors who are asked to deliver the verbatim dialogue, with all its inherent fits and starts, interruptions and weirdnesses, without pushing the conversation into the mannered eccentricity of, say, a David Mamet script. These words must sound authentic yet potent, banal yet ominous. The sensational Davis, making her Broadway debut, pulls it off in what we can assume will be a career-making performance, and she’s matched beat for beat by Cobbs and, especially, the stuttering, coughing Simpson, with Blackwell as the comes-and-goes investigator sprinkling it all with an eerie vibe that seems almost too unsettling to be true. Almost.
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