Reader, I acted before. I would hit the boards with whimsical, experimental plays at Off-Off venues down 14th Street many years ago. Impeachment: American Crime Story Years ago. Back then, slipping around La MaMa or the Ontological with a peacock feather sticking out of my butt, it was crazy to think of a Broadway move. Such a move contradicts logic, aesthetics, and economics: The work is too bizarre, audiences too dumb, and Broadway producers have only invested in tourist trash or naturalistic living room living space.
Now the feminist-queer-deconstructive troupe of director Tina Satter Half Straddle is performing Is This A Room at the Lyceum on 45th Street and I must conclude that Times have Changed. It seems that younger audiences have grown up with decades of indie film, social media, and- I don’t know- Adult Swim is ready for the isolation devices and warping filters honed by the avant- gardist for many generations.
That’s not it Is This A Room is an inaccessible object. It’s a spy story, derived from the FBI interrogation version of Reality Winner, a former Air Force word expert who – while working for a government contractor – got his hands on a classified report about the disruption of Russia in the 2016 election and it was released to the press The winner was addressed at the home of two agents and unidentified others, and during a superficial humane but psychologically relentless questioning, they took a confession. Winner (then 25) spent four years in prison and now lives in a half house wearing an ankle monitor.
Satter and his company present the transcript verbatim, every overlapping fragment and stutter, every “um” and “okay” rendered with watchmaking accuracy. In the first 20 or so minutes, a ridiculous (but convincing) amount of time was spent talking to Winner about what pets and weapons he kept in the house, how to put the his groceries (he buys) to avoid spoilage. The whole time you think sadly, decaying ones can end up in the trash.
The four actresses – Emily Davis as Winner, Pete Simpson and Will Cobbs as Agent Garrick and Taylor, respectively, and Becca Blackwell as the slightly gushing Unknown Man – are pure perfection. Performing with the easy hardness of a world-class string quartet, they draw tense and annoying music from the source. The translucent Davis is like a raw root, glib, stiff, scared, vibrating fast to get out of this slow-moving trap. Simpson, with an agile, extravagant vibe, makes a simple cough or lean in an inch too close to a tactical offense, and the handsome, coiled Cobbs reflects the same “good cop / bad cop ”with steely grace. Then there’s Blackwell’s secret weapon, zipped into a bulletproof vest, juggling walkie-talkies unleashing pointless nonsense, as a roving agent securing the perimeter and fighting to take care of Winner’s cat and dog. This massive charismatic trans actor is like a stagehand roaming for comic relief.
Like the dance of a play. We watch, surprisingly, as agents casually roll into Winner’s personal space, then go back, adjust, rotate, and repeat. The 65 minute piece is like a program in nature where a pride of lions approaches to stalk and lower a gazelle.
Parker Lutz’s aggressive neutral set is a gray expanse of carpeting with a line of empty seats against the wall above the stage and elevated areas to the left and right. The lighting (by Thomas Dunn) and sound (Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada) keep us in balance with magenta washes and soothing electronic loops that fade in and out. The scared dog of the winner was from the lobby behind us. At times we see the scene from Winner’s panicked, out-of-body POV. Satter then puts up visuals that reinforce the text: Whenever someone says something altered from the public-facing transcript, it’s a quick blackout. Darkness as a censor bar. When you look at Dunn’s incongruous purple-pink light, soothing and girly-hued, you realize: the stage is the color of a bruise.
Satter is an old hand at orchestrating such deft, subliminal staging. By basing this little choreographing and tweaking performance on the found text, the director in effect created a live rotoscoping effect-animations created by following the photo footage of motion, frame by frame. A palimpsest of reality / Reality wriggles and shivers under the distorting effects of manual redrawing. It gives the show the vague, half -remembered aura of a traumatic event or dream of fever.
The found-text drama has an interesting history in downtown theater. Is This A Room is successor to the Lyceum included Dana H. by Luke Hnath, which is pure from the hours of the interview with the player’s mother (I’ll review that next week). Both of these remarkable shows ran (separately) pre-pandemic to heroism Vineyard Theater, the leading manufacturer in this massive commendable remount.
They remind me of another legendary play of found text from town: Charlie Victor Romeo, which premiered in 1999 in Collective: Unaware of Ludlow Street and later toured and filmed. CVR is a hyper-detailed reenactment of “black box” cockpit voice recordings from commercial flights that ended in fatal crashes. More of a serious docudrama, CVR is a picture of professionalism and human dignity in the face of amoral tragedy. You can say the same about bad nightmares Is This A Room. The gears of the tracking state (of which, imagine, the Winner is a part) close around our happy hero with almost astonishing efficiency.
I was surprised by this immaculate machine two years ago at Vineyard, and its impact and relevance increased. What was your reaction to the January 6 attack on the capitol? They lock, maybe? While there is a world of difference between the Winner’s resistance act and a violent, ethnofascist mob, both acts invite the state to come down to your house and calmly, operate, take your life . Which crimes born of political conscience are forgivable and which are not? The topic may only grow more urgent in the coming years. The world is getting weirder by the day. I think the audience is ready for it now.