The phrase emergency situation takes on an urgency that circles back to banal in Jason Wells’s dark satire, a product of the 2010 First Look Repertory of New Work at Steppenwolf now receiving its official Chicago premiere. Some sort of coup has occurred in the U.S. government, with the Department of Homeland Security taking control. Details are fuzzy, as we learn in the holding room of a Podunk police station in rural Missouri, since DHS has also locked down the media. But Shonda (Lucy Sandy), the nervous young administrative officer charged with watching over a pair of prisoners, parrots the party line as though it were an amulet: Rights being trampled? Reporters silenced? Well, it’s an emergency situation, you see.
One of Shonda’s charges is a midlevel State Department employee (Kevin Stark) who claims to have a database of American citizens the new quasimilitary regime is looking to round up without cause; he’s being held for questioning by DHS. The other prisoner is Tanya (Kate Buddeke), a loudmouthed, self-involved petty criminal whose corrosive outbursts derail attempts by Stark’s exasperated Carlton to appeal to Shonda’s better angels. This first act, with Buddeke and Stark stalking around adjacent cages, is much more tightly focused than the second, which sees a freed Tanya and Shonda conspiring to rescue Carlton, or at least his list, from the clutches of the odd-couple DHS agents (Tom Hickey and Brian King). The action here, given a good deal of menace in Kimberly Senior’s production, raises provocative questions about the use and misuse of the Constitution in our post–September 11, perpetual-war state. But Wells doesn’t probe too deeply, favoring farcical high jinks before coming to an abrupt and unsatisfying end.