The characters in Faceless, a new play by 22-year-old recent Northwestern graduate Selina Fillinger, rarely keep their thoughts to themselves. They are forthright, prickly, and all too quick with an unpopular opinion. The confidence with which they all hold court—sometimes literally, since it’s a courtroom drama—echoes the confidence baked into every word of Fillinger’s script. It’s uncommon for 22-year-olds to have their work produced at a theater like Northlight under a director like BJ Jones, but Faceless is not the kind of play that 22-year-olds commonly write. While it certainly has its flaws—more on those in a bit—Faceless really is one hell of a debut.
In what surely will come as a crushing blow to the current administration, the play revolves around a homegrown radical who tries to move overseas and join ISIS. Even worse for them, the radical in question is a white, teenage girl named Susie Glenn (Lindsay Stock). After falling in love with an ISIS member over Facebook and converting to Islam over Twitter, Susie gets caught and arrested right before she can board a plane to the Middle East to meet her new “fiancé”. Unfortunately for Susie and her out-of-his-depth widower father (Joe Dempsey), her case ends up on the desk of Scott Bader (Timothy Edward Kane), an ambitious and hard-nosed federal prosecutor who decides to throw the entire book at her, with charges that could put Susie in prison for 20 years. In the play’s opening moments, one of Bader’s junior attorneys, a Harvard-trained Muslim woman of Iranian-French descent named Claire Fathi (Susaan Jamshidi) gets brought into his office and learns that she will now be helping Bader with the case. In fact, she will be the face of it, squaring off against Susie’s kindly yet formidable defense attorney (played by Ross Lehman).
For much of its first half, Faceless has a sharp-elbowed satirical streak, where serious issues of race, religion, fake news and criminal justice are filtered through the trial lawyer’s cynical craft. It’s the kind of play where an (entirely accurate) accusation of tokenism is not denied, but readily agreed upon as the best way to win. This kind of dialogue, as sparkling, self-assured and funny as it often is, does have the effect of leaving little room for subtext.
Many of the scenes are exercises in debate rather than drama. Even the play’s shadows, its moral gray areas, come with edges so neat and tidy that they lose some of their power. For many the play will surely bring to mind the works of a young Aaron Sorkin: The characters are broad yet complex, likable but difficult, and often seem like vehicles for the words coming out of their mouths. This comparison is about 80% compliment, 20% critique.
Yet as the trial grows closer to a verdict, the play becomes less interested in its outcome and more in the nature of the faith that Susie so fervently believes she and Claire share. Whereas Susie early on seems like kind of a pill—a teenaged narcissist par excellence—Fillinger slowly peels back the layers to reveal the wounded, heartfelt girl underneath. Even though the play, on paper, seems like it wants to be more about Claire and her journey than it wants to be about Susie, it’s truly at its best when Susie is its primary focus.
One such moment, when Susie tweets out an #ISIS hashtag and then sits enraptured as her Twitter followers explode from 3 to more than 700, has a kind of beautifully sad poetry to it that the rest of the play lacks. (The video projections from designer Stephan Mazurek really help this moment pop.) Faceless leaves little doubt that Fillinger is a master of craft, slicing and dicing with tools that most playwrights her age are still years away from honing. The play is well-made, well-structured, and well-paced to a degree that’s rare in a professional debut. And like all great debuts, Faceless will leave you eagerly waiting to see what Fillinger does next.
Northlight Theatre. By Selina Fillinger. Directed by BJ Jones. With Susaan Jamshidi, Timothy Edward Kane, Ross Lehman, Lindsay Stock, Joe Dempsey. Running time: 1hr 25mins; no intermission.