theater review

Is This a Room Asks Questions America Can’t Answer

From Is This a Room, at the Lyceum Theatre. Photo: Chad Batka

There ought to be an easy response to the question in the title of the play Is This a Room. When after about an hour someone finally asks it, a pack of FBI agents are clustered around a young woman in a corner of her house. It’s a simple question, but it still turns ambiguous and bizarre. If a room isn’t a room, what is it? In Tina Satter’s eerie, essential play about the NSA-leaker Reality Winner, the nature of everything seems to waver. Nothing is as it seems. Is this an arrest? Is this the truth? Is this a play?

Is This a Room dwells in a nebulous other-region, even now that it has moved uptown to Broadway. The 75-minute thriller is conducted in suspended time: You don’t leave the show so much as you wake from it, shaking off its foggy, clinging, chilly mood. Satter and her company have built a highly choreographed event around a found text, the verbatim transcript (with redactions) of Winner’s arrest at her home in 2017. Satter hasn’t changed a single word, revealing the exquisite way lowercase-r reality can “write” a text. On the page, the unscripted lines already throb with subtext and sing with terrifying overtones.

It’s possible our ears aren’t as good at listening for those overtones as they were in early 2019, when the show first premiered Off-Off Broadway. The name Reality Winner might ring a bell, but do you remember that she was a 25-year-old NSA contractor, taken into custody by Special Agent Justin Garrick for leaking classified information to The Intercept? The subject of her disclosures was excised from the FBI’s recording when it was released to the public, but the show finds a way to “perform” even blacked-out text: When Emily Davis, playing Winner, touches on the subject of her leak, the stage pulses with an electric buzz (Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada did the sound design) or flashes deep pink. Time skips, like a needle on a warped record.

Of course, real life skips, too, as does memory. Winner revealed classified information about Russian interference in the 2016 election, but you might have one of a thousand other recent horrors uppermost in your mind. With no hints from the stage about which fact she was leaking, your mind scrolls through choices, blurring them together. There is so much that is both known and unknown — so many things that have been officially secret and on the front page at the same time.

The transcript picks up when the FBI agents ask Reality if she knows why they’re at her door, and she denies it as long as she can. The men are affable and friendly, in the way that men with guns can be, and they try to put her at her ease. They ask her question after question, many of them easy to answer. How long have you been in Augusta? How much do you lift? What’s your dog’s name? “She doesn’t really like men!” Winner laughs, terrified they’ll get jumpy and shoot her dog. They keep asking questions; they certainly never Mirandize her. Reality replies conscientiously, trying to remember dates and details, and we hear her stumble when her answers aren’t quite true. Has she ever printed out something at work? The interrogation circles closer to the law she’s broken. She lies. But — thanks to some disastrously sloppy op-sec by The Intercept and her own naïve smuggling techniques — they already know what she’s done.

Satter’s production treats her actors as sculptures and the stage as their gallery. Parker Lutz’s set design is a long platform with steps stage left and right, backed by a row of empty chairs. Reality’s home is in Augusta, Georgia, and she’s wearing shorts with her yellow Pikachu hightops — but this black-and-gray emptiness seems as cold as the moon. Stage pictures are mainly created by Thomas Dunn’s lighting, which sometimes traps Davis in a long white triangle, a film noir heroine caught in a searchlight. The actors toggle between cinematic realism and stylization. The ingratiating Garrick (Pete Simpson) likes to crowd Reality, whereas Agent Taylor (Will Cobbs) rushes at her and retreats, and Unknown Male (Becca Blackwell) wanders the periphery seeing to logistics. The often hilarious Blackwell manages to make puppeteering a stuffed dog look totally natural; Simpson has nailed the “guy with sinus issues” sniffle. But the four also sometimes compose themselves into formal stage geometries. Suddenly they’re standing in a precise lineup — wait, which one is the criminal? — or in a wedge, like a military phalanx.

Everyone I’ve spoken to about the show had forgotten the details of Reality’s situation. “I guess I just didn’t care about myself at that point,” Winner says twice to her interrogators, as she finally starts narrating her decision to leak secrets. She thinks it’s more important to tell American citizens that our voting system has been attacked than to preserve her own safety — but too many of us could say the same thing. We haven’t really cared about her either. How many people know she got the longest sentence ever given for releasing government secrets to the media? That black void of the set is the hole of public memory.

I’ve seen and written about Is This a Room twice before. There was the debut Off–Off Broadway at the Kitchen, where it was a shock; there was the Off Broadway run at the Vineyard, where it was a hit. Whenever a show moves, it adjusts to its new venue. I have adored it everywhere I’ve seen it, but the huge box of the Lyceum does change the dynamics of Satter’s extraordinary staging, making it seem both more gorgeous and more severe. Even at a distance, the translucent Davis grips the audience, but you should sit close to get the full impact of her microscopically observed performance: the way her eyelids shake, how fear crawls up the muscles in her throat. A Broadway theater is not just a different stage-space, though. It’s not just about scale. The people in that room will have different preoccupations and expectations from those audiences who greeted it rapturously downtown. I’m curious, and a little fearful, about how that will go.

More than any other play I have loved in the last few years, Is This a Room has surprised me in how differently audiences see it. To me it contains a frightening portrait of male menace; to others it’s a picture of men being kind while doing their job. To me Reality seems too good for this world; others watch the same production and see her as a liar and a fool. The questions are the same for each of us, but the answers are not, and somehow this show contains multiple truths, managing to stay on the edge between one certainty and another. So — Is this a room? The play refuses to tell us outright, but whatever it is, the walls have begun to collapse.

Is This a Room is at the Lyceum Theatre.

Is This a Room Asks Questions America Can’t Answer