Broadway review by Adam Feldman
Remember Reality Winner? A 25-year-old Air Force veteran working as a translator for the National Security Agency, Winner was arrested in 2017 for leaking a classified report about Russian interference in the previous year’s presidential election, a crime for which she was sentenced to five years in prison. But you can be forgiven if all you recall about the case is its subject’s striking name: Amid the chaos of the news cycles, Winner was one snowflake in an avalanche. Tina Satter’s highly absorbing Is This A Room is based on the verbatim transcript of the FBI’s initial interview of Winner on June 3, 2017, at her home in Augusta, Georgia. Refocusing our attention on Winner’s case, if only for an hour, it asks us to pause and take a breath of cold air.
Satter’s staging presents the inquisition austerely but with a mounting sense of tragedy. On a minimalist-classical set, the visibly nervous Winner (Emily Davis) is questioned by Agent Garrick (an excellent Pete Simpson, puffed with pseudo-bonhomie) and Agent Taylor (Will Cobbs); an unidentified third man (Becca Blackwell) is also present. Their talk starts small, but it’s clear that they know more than they're letting on—and, in fact, more than what the transcript tells us, since parts of it have been censored. The production smartly balances vérité and stylization, offering its own interrogation of the event: The FBI agents often stand unsettlingly close to Winner; some sections of text are sped up, and others are given a mildly absurdist spin; the music (by Sanae Yamada) and sound design (by Yamada and Lee Kinney) help create a sense of unease; redacted sections of the text are rendered as ellipses of darkness, as though unlit by reverse flashbulbs.
Is This A Room is a formally unconventional play with downtown energy—it played at the Kitchen and the Vineyard Theatre in 2019—and as such it is an audacious choice for Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, where it is playing in rep with another docutheater work, Dana H. In this larger forum, the play acquires a certain added weight: It demands to be taken seriously, and the questions it raises about power, surveillance and sacrifice are worthy of the platform. At the same time, its 65-minute running time feels slight for the space and the price, and one misses the intense intimacy of the Vineyard, where audience members were seated on both sides of the action. (A row of empty seats at the back of the stage stands in for the missing spectators.)
But Is This A Room still has a movingly human presence at its core. Davis gives a performance of heart-wrenching rawness and lucidity; as you watch her dissolve from the inside, what emerges with force is a sympathetic and specific portrait of a young woman trying to do the right thing in a very wrong time. This is a spare show, but Satter doesn’t have to add much to the text to keep us fastened in. Reality is interesting enough.
Lyceum Theatre (Broadway). Conceived and directed by Tina Satter. With Emily Davis, Pete Simpson, Will Cobbs, Becca Blackwell. Running time: 1hr 5mins. No intermission.