By EDWARD RUBIN
I cannot remember any play that unnerved me to such a degree as the Vineyard Theatre’s production of Tina Satter’s brilliantly conceived Is This A Room. Not only did this one hour and ten minute play keep me glued to my seat, it set me on tenterhooks, and scared the bejesus out of me. Slowly at that!
If I was an adherent to conspiracy theories (which, of course ,we all love don’t we?), I would swear that this beautifully acted and directed play, based on an actual (now-unclassified) word-for-word recording of an FBI sting operation, was a government-sponsored initiative whose sole purpose was to terrorize prospective whistleblowers.
I only vaguely remember the real-life story behind this play. At the time (June 2017), it was a big headline-grabbing deal. Big enough for President Trump to tweet “Ex-NSA contractor to spend 63 months in jail over “classified” information. Gee, this is “small potatoes” compared to what Hillary Clinton did. So unfair Jeff (Sessions). Double standard.”
It all started when a young, idealistic former linguist in the Air Force with the unlikely (but real) name of Reality Winner sent out a highly classified document which showed proof of the Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, to a news organization. This was done while she was at work at Pluribus International, a company that supports missions of the intelligence and military communities.
This four-character play, dramatically harrowing, and painful to watch, is played out on a bare and oft-darkened stage (Parker Lutz) and moreso, as most of us might divine, to an unhappy ending. It starts out innocently enough as we watch a casually dressed Reality in sneakers and sweatpants (Enver Chakartash), returning to her home from grocery shopping. The main thought on her mind is to feed her cat.
However, this is not to be, and the cat will have to wait, as three men – two FBI agents, Agent Garrick (Frank Boyd), Agent Taylor (TL Thompson), and an unknown male, whose affiliation we never learn (Becca Blackwell), show up at her doorstep.
Armed with search warrants for both house and car they are there to interrogate her. Though the agents’ intent on following protocol mention several times that they have search warrants, strangely Reality never asks to see them, and they never attempt to show them to her.
The interrogation starts out on her front lawn with lots banal small talk about her pets (besides a cat she also owns a dog), her groceries, gym attendance, and the contents of her house and car. Eventually all four enter the house, after it is carefully searched and the dog tied up in the back yard, and a mostly empty room is chosen for more serious questioning. It is this very room that gives this play its title.
Slowly, as the play progresses, from harmless and faux-friendly banal questions, to those more pointed, the noose around Reality’s neck quickly tightens. With nowhere to run Reality finally breaks down and confesses that she did indeed send classified documents out. At this point, worrying about the care of her pets Reality asks the agents, “What’s going to happen now. Am I going to be arrested now? Will I be taken from my house?”
The answer, leaving both Reality and the audience in the dark is that the FBI agents are waiting to hear from somebody higher up to tell them what action to take.
Adding to the overall drama of the production is the original mood-setting music of Sanae Yamada, the inventive sound design of Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada and lighting design of Thomas Dunn. The latter three, ingeniously devised a way signaling the redacted portions of the text whenever they appeared with an ominous sound clap from on high which pitches the theater into total darkness.
The joy of this play (if you can call it that), and the pain of this play (and you can call it that) is in the watching Reality’s disassembling under the excruciatingly threatening letter-perfect questioning of the FBI. They certainly know their Good Cop, Bad Cop stuff. I would venture a guess that the majority of audience – especially in today’s political atmosphere – if asked to choose the lesser of two evils would cast their vote for Reality.
The balletic cat and mouse acting and direction which has the three men circling Reality, sometimes coming inches from her face, is as harrowing as Reality’s facial and body reactions. She twists, she turns, she fidgets, she goes both pale and flush, her eyes well up, and her nose runs (at least on the night that I was there).
The only actress this year who gave us such a stellar performance is Saoirse Ronan who for her role of Jo March in the film Little Women. For this she was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Actress category. It will be interesting to see, come May, if Emily Davis’ channeling of Reality Winner piques the interest of the Outer Critic Circle and Drama Desk members. I certainly would like to see a win.
Note: To answer any questions the departing audience might have, we were given, on the way out of the theater, a flyer which informed us that Reality Winner is still in jail serving a record-breaking sentence under the Espionage Act. To further tell the story of Reality Winner, printed on the bottom of the flyer is a link to more Reality-based information.
Cast: Becca Blackwell (Unknown Male), Frank Boyd (Agent Garrick), Emily Davis (Reality Winner), Tl Thompson (Agent Taylor)
Technical: Scenic Design: Parker Lutz, Costume Design: Enver Chakartash, Lighting Design: Thomas Dunn, Sound Design: Lee Kinney, Sound Design/Original Music: Sanae Yamada, Puppet Design: Amanda Villalobos
Is This A Room opened on October 21, 2019 at the Vineyard Theatre in New York City at 108 East 15th Street and closed on Sunday, January 19, 2020. Conceived and directed by Tina Satter, it had a running time of 1 hour and 10 minutes with no intermission.
(Edward Rubin is a member of American Theatre Critics Association, NYC’s Drama Desk, and the Outer Critics Circle.)