Is This a Room is not the first time a transcript has been put on stage but it may just be the first time that an unclassified FBI transcript of an interrogation has been turned into an evening in the theater. Conceived and directed by Tina Satter, artistic director of the Obie Award winning Half Straddle theater company, Is This a Room is a dramatization of a verbatim transcript (with redacted portions suggested by blackouts) of 25-year-old former American Intelligence specialist Reality Winner who was arrested on suspicion of leaking an intelligence report about Russian interference in the 2016 United States election to the news website The Intercept. Her eventual sentence of five years and three months in prison for violating the Espionage Act is reputedly the longest ever imposed for an unauthorized release of government information to the media.
The performance at the Vineyard Theatre is that four-character transcript with Winner (played by Emily Davis), lead FBI Special Agent Justin C. Garrick (Pete Simpson), Agent R. Wallace Taylor (TL Thompson) and “Unknown Male” (i.e. an unidentified FBI agent played by Becca Blackwell.) it covers a time period on June 3, 2017 in Augusta, Georgia, when FBI agents showed up at the home of Winner to interrogate her.
The performances as well as the dialogue are cool and unemotional as you might expect from four professionals used to doing their jobs, until about three quarters of the way through when Winner confesses to having mailed out the document that they have been asking her about after admitting that she had printed it out to read it. From then on for the last 15 minutes, the tension rises as it become obvious that Winner will not be allowed to go home.
There are three problems with this material as a stage play. Firstly, we are not told what it is that Winner is supposed to have xeroxed and the consequences of her apparently having sent it to the media. It now appears to have been the first published proof that the Russians had hacked the 2016 U.S. election but that is not discussed in the dialogue as this is a preliminary investigation. The play either needs program notes or sends the viewers home do some research on their own. This is not a story that will be known to most members of the audience.
The second problem is that since it is a transcript it is not very dramatic, going back over the same material again and again, trying to catch Winner out or be careful to cover all legal bases. The dialogue remains mundane for most of the performance: questions about how long Winner has lived in this house, her early career in the Air Force, her pets (a cat and a dog who might attack the FBI agents – all men), her recent vacation to Costa Rica, etc. The agents never raise their voices or the temperature. As directed by Satter, it is a very chilly performance, intentionally so.
A third problem is how are we to approach what Winner is accused of doing. Is she a whistleblower which is usually defined as going to a higher up with evidence of wrongdoing? Or is she a traitor who broke the oath that she took when she took her job? On the one hand, she revealed important data; on the other, she committed the crime of revealing classified information. Is This a Room really does not give us enough facts to decide on her guilt or innocence for ourselves.
Parker Lutz’s minimalist set also is a factor in setting the tone: the all-white stage with the audience sitting facing each other on both sides of the playing area is used to represent both the outside of Winner’s home as well as rooms inside but as no props or furniture are used, it is all entirely left to the audience’s imagination. The extremely bland costumes in blue, beige and white by Enver Chakartash are in keeping with the production but remain anti-theatrical. In Thomas Dunn’s lighting design, the changes are so subtle as not to be noticeable except for the sudden blackouts which represent the redactions.
While the FBI agents’ obvious questions and endless repetitions are almost funny one does not laugh out loud, like the line about “Is this is – this a room? Is that a room?” when we see only the empty white stage. Simpson, Thompson and Blackwell could not be better as professionals quietly doing their job. While Davis as Winner initially assumes that they have come to question her about a new job application submitted the day before, she is eventually rattled by information that they supply, suggesting they knew all along what she did. She is totally believable but offers little emotion other than getting tense as she senses she has inadvertently confessed.
While Tina Satter’s direction is as cool as a cucumber, the lack of props make us question what actually happened. The FBI agents offer to show Winner their badges and later their warrant but do no such thing. We never know if they did show them to her or did she not insist on seeing them. Was she expecting them all along? Is This a Room leaves us with more questions than answers.
Is This a Room (return engagement December 20, 2019 – January 19, 2020)
Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets call, 212-353-0303 or visit http://www.VineyardTheatre.org
Running time: one hour and ten minutes without an intermission