Much is improbable about “Is This A Room,” starting with the name of the real-life whistleblower who’s the subject of the play (Reality Winner), and the fact that she received a stupefyingly long prison sentence (more than five years) for leaking an intelligence report about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election; this was the longest sentence in history for an unauthorized release of government information to the press.
It was improbable that downtown theater artist Tina Satter decided to turn Reality Winner’s story into a play by staging just the verbatim transcript of the initial FBI interrogation of Winner, and that the unusual play, first presented at the cutting-edge performance space The Kitchen, found an audience Off Broadway. It is more improbable still that this hour-long theater piece is now opening on Broadway. “Is This A Room,” opening tonight, is scheduled to play in rotation with “Dana H.” (which opens on October 17) at the Lyceum through January 15, 2022.
As it turns out, “Is This A Room” works better for me on Broadway than it did when I saw it at the Vineyard Theater in 2019. This is true even though it is much the same production, with the same minimalist set, same creative team, and three of the four cast members intact. But the Lyceum has better acoustics and a better sound system, and the actors, while still low-key, project their voices more clearly (as they have to, given that the Broadway house is seven times larger.) The lighting strikes me as more effective dramatically. Even the dog puppet that is briefly carried across the stage appears more lifelike.
The improved theatrical environment better enables theatergoers to take in the details of the odd and fascinating encounter that occurred on June 3, 2017 when 11 FBI agents descended unannounced on the Augusta, Georgia home of Reality Winner, then 25 years old (who is portrayed on stage by Emily Davis, making her Broadway debut.) Special Agents Justin G. Garrick and R. Wallace Taylor (Pete Simpson and Will Cobbs) – the only two agents named in the transcript (and two of just three actors portraying FBI agents on stage) – greet her informally
“How’s your day today?” Agent Garick asks
“Uh, it’s pretty good. Just got some groceries “
before explaining that they have a search warrant.
“Uh, do you know what this might be about?” Agent Garrick asks her.
I have no idea,” Winner replies.
“Okay. This is about, uh, possible mishandling of classified information”
“Oh my goodness. Okay.”
Winner is like the friendly girl next door, who has a fat cat named Queen Latifah that she’s put on her lease, and has a rescue dog named Nicky that doesn’t like men (that’s the puppet an agent carried away.)
For much of the time, the agents trade casual anecdotes with Reality about pets and phones and exercise, making sure that not just Reality but also her dog and cat are comfortable. It’s only in the last 15 minutes or so that they get down to business. And even then, they act understanding.
“1 don’t think we’re coming in here to say you’re some big bad mastermind…”
“Is This A Room” is intriguing for its glimpse into FBI interrogation techniques, and Reality Winner’s alternately fresh-faced and cagey response to them, which makes the play feel almost like a psychological thriller. But there’s a lot that’s left out – and I don’t just mean the parts of the transcript that are redacted. A more conventional theater artist, and/or one who had set out from the beginning to tell Reality Winner’s story on Broadway, might have constructed a more broadly focused play that more fully explained her motivation for doing what she did (she offers just a few comments in the play), and provided some context about the Russian interference – we don’t even learn in Satter’s play that the report was about Russian interference. Such a play would also surely have fleshed out Reality Winner’s background (Texas-born, brilliant high school student who never went to college, a former linguist with the Air Force), and perhaps offered us some background on whistleblowers and whistleblowing, including the U.S. government’s contradictory policies about them. We might have been told (perhaps in a postscript) about what’s happened to her since; Winner was released from prison in June of this year, but is still reportedly on house arrest with an ankle monitor.
Instead “Is This A Room” leaves much unexamined, unexplained, inexplicable, including the title, which is a question asked for some reason by the person identified in the transcript (and the playbill) only as “Unknown Male” (and portrayed on stage by Becca Blackwell.) Maybe the lack of explanation is much of Satter’s point. Her play is not about the reality of Reality Winner but the surreality of modern existence, so much of which keeps us in the dark. If the result is some baffling moments in the play, they as often as not are odd enough to be entertaining:
“Are there any weapons in the car, in the house?” Agent Taylor asks.
“In the house, yes,” Winner replies.
“What do you have?”
“I have an AR-15.”
“Is it pink?”
Winner laughs. “.How’d you know?”
The agent doesn’t answer.
Is This A Room
At the Lyceum Theater, running in a rotating schedule with Dana H. through November 28, 2021
Conceived and directed by Tina Satter
Running time: 65 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $39 to $199
Scenic design by Parker Lutz, costume design by Enver, lighting design by Thomas Dunn, sound design by Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada, original music by Yamada, and puppet design by Amanda Villalobos
Cast: Emily Davis, Becca Blackwell, Will Cobbs and Pete Simpson.
Photographs by Chad Batka