Lee Culvert (Kaliswa Brewster) enters. Sharply dressed for business but with a personal flair, she briefly surveys the empty room and begins setting up her laptop. Moments later, Paige Smith (Amelia Pedlow) arrives, more conservatively dressed, accessorized with water bottle and laptop. After exchanging a brief and awkward greeting, the two junior diplomats begin to speculate on their new assignment to the enigmatic, seasoned negotiator Sarah MacIntyre, offering different viewpoints, levels of enthusiasm and speculated outcomes.
Confident and charismatic, the aforementioned Sarah MacIntyre (Rachel Pickup) enters the room, introduces herself and proceeds to tell the other two women that for the next two weeks they’re all to be sequestered together to “do something amazing,” which will ultimately be to write up classified “new training scenarios for the resolution of intractable global situations.”
This setting and premise alone might suggest quite a dull evening of theater, except for the fact that from the moment these actresses converge on the stage, the subtle energies of their characters begin to intertwine and negotiate for space and position, piquing the interest of the audience. Sarah continues by telling the other two that they’ll all be role-playing to create the best writing and thinking they’ve ever done:
You’re going to hate this room.
You’re going to hate me.
We’re going to do something amazing.
We’re going to forget
that we’re three dull suits in a room.
We’re going to get out of Washington.
Go around the world
putting on the faces of people who scare us,
looking out their eyes.
Understanding their reality.
Finding the gaps and the hot spots and the vulnerabilities
that let us communicate with someone,
even when they’re so dangerous they seem
beyond the reach of our words.
The work commences, and these women begin to go in and out of role play, taking turns as the negotiator and the instigator of the “intractable global situation” they’re dealing with. The dialogue quickly jumps between real and unreal each time fingers are snapped, and the intensity of acting out their parts brings the weaknesses, strengths and fears of each of the women to the surface as they explore the depths of, essentially, the evil that men do.
The play reaches its climax when the women learn of the deaths of hundreds of women at the hand of the very terrorist with whom they’ve been practicing negotiating.
When do we make bargains
with bad people
for the greater good?
do we build trust upon?
Brewster, Pedlow and Pickup are fantastic. Their portrayals are distinct and subtle despite their characters’ corporate outlines, and their lightning transitions in and out of role play are dizzyingly fast but crystal clear.
Jess Chayes’ direction is superb, creating a perfect arc to this densely written drama and bringing its packed prose to life.
Sophia Choi’s costuming gives uniqueness to all three women despite the confines of corporate dress; quick blouse changes and other small adjustments cleverly depict the passage of time with little effort.
Carolyn Mraz’s scenic design creates the ideal bleak conference room setting for the story, not taking focus yet giving the actors physical space with which to interact. Although the script calls for one clock on the wall, the choice to include several clocks in red digital letters perfectly matches the intensity of the play. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting design complements the production extremely well.
Generic title aside, Helen Banner’s Intelligence is excellently written, intense, and thought-provoking. Its characters’ high-stakes struggle for power and control, both politically and personally, is compelling to watch.
Intelligence (through February 3, 2019)
Dutch Kills Theater
Next Door at NYTW, 79 East 4th Street, between Second Avenue and Bowery, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-460-5475 or visit https://www.nytw.org/show/intelligence/
Running time: 110 minutes with no intermission