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Theater review by Helen Shaw
Helen Banner’s psychodrama Intelligence is set deep in the belly of the State Department. In a sub-basement conference room with a gigantic red digital clock on the wall, three women fret and argue about the limits of diplomacy. The oldest, Sarah MacIntyre (Rachel Pickup), is a beautiful, controversial, possibly reckless superstar in the realm of international relations. Banner envisions her as a particular brand of experience-light, leaning-in monster, who complains that younger women try to limit her and is absolutely positive that her mishmash of business-speak and narcissistic self-empowerment can overhaul a hidebound foreign service.
MacIntyre has just managed a groundbreaking success: Because she dared to talk frankly with a bloodthirsty insurgent leader, some country (undefined in Banner’s script) is now tasting peace for the first time. Eager to get her methods baked into the manuals at State, MacIntyre has roped in two lower-level employees, Lee (Kaliswa Brewster) and Paige (Amelia Pedlow), to help her turn her process into formal guidelines immediately. That her method is basically just role-playing and arm-stroking dawns on the other two, who come to realize that hitching their wagons to a star going nova might not be professionally wise.
But while the play is built to feel like a pressure cooker, Banner has left the lid open. As a week in the basement drifts by—does a manual ever really need to be written so quickly?—Banner never lets her characters speak in specifics, and generalizations have a way of making time stretch. There’s trouble, too, in whom she’s chosen to focus on: Lee and Paige have no ability to fix the things that are clearly going wrong, and the looming catastrophe does not seem to be heading very close to them personally. Banner has a dab hand for the hell-is-other-people quality of her story’s infinite meeting, and director Jess Chayes does everything she can with pace. But despite a lot of very tense talking, the play keeps surrendering its sense of urgency.
If Intelligence feels very long at 100 minutes, that does give you time to sit back and admire the superb set by Carolyn Mraz, the genuinely beautiful lighting design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, the clever costuming by Sophia Choi and the cinematic sound by Sinan Refik Zafar. Chayes does crisp, sometimes quite funny work with the physical staging, and the three actors thrum with intensity. The play eventually includes a critique of our current administration—never by name, but by noting the waste in a State Department that fires its longtime civil servants. This focus on government’s background actors and unsung, un-starry functionaries makes you grateful all over again for the talents who give it everything they’ve got, even when the policy needs a rewrite.
4th Street Theatre (Off-Off Broadway). By Helen Banner. Directed by Jess Chayes. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.