Gertrude and Irving Dimson Theatre
108 East 15th St. between Union Square East & Irving Pl.
December 20 - January 19, $35-$100
If you missed Tina Satter’s off-Broadway hit Is This A Room, it will be back at the Vineyard for a limited return engagement December 20 through January 19, with the same cast and crew. Below is my original review of this must-see work.
In 2017, upon first reading the official FBI “Verbatim Transcription” of the initial interrogation of twenty-five-year-old linguist Reality Winner regarding leaked classified information, Half Straddle founder and artistic director Tina Satter knew she had her next play. She also knew she had her star, company member Emily Davis. The resulting show, Is This A Room, which debuted at the Kitchen before evolving into the production returning to the Vineyard, is a gripping re-creation of the event, a dramatic word-for-word account of the FBI’s fascinating methods of questioning and Winner’s uncertain answers, at least at the beginning.
Parker Lutz’s spare stage consists of a few raised platforms and posts that represent both the outside and the inside of Winner’s house in Augusta, Georgia. There is no furniture and no props other than stuffed versions of Winner’s dog and cat. (Amanda Villalobos designed the animal puppets.) There is also a row of twelve seats along the back of the stage where a dozen audience members sit, including me; I felt like part of a jury and a person under surveillance, watched by Winner, the FBI agents, and the crowd in the regular seats. Special Agents Justin C. Garrick (Pete Simpson) and R. Wallace Taylor (TL Thompson) arrive at Winner’s (Davis) house just as she has come home from shopping. The men are in plainclothes; Winner is wearing a white button-down shirt, cut-off jean shorts, and yellow high-top canvas sneakers without socks, her hair pulled back in a knot. (The costumes are by Enver Chakartash.) While Garrick is friendly with Winner, making conversation about pets, exercise, work, weapons, and perishables, Taylor is much more direct and in her face, engaging in a variant of the classic good-cop, bad-cop scenario. In addition, an unidentified male agent (Becca Blackwell) in battle fatigues, as if ready for any kind of possible trouble, keeps entering and leaving, helping out with the dog and cat and securing the interior and exterior spaces.
“Okay, well, the reason we’re here today is that we have a search warrant for your house,” Garrick tells Winner, who responds innocently, “Okay.” Garrick: “All right. Uh, do you know what this might be about?” Winner: “I have no idea.” Garrick: “Okay. This is about, uh, the possible mishandling of classified information.” Winner: “Oh my goodness. Okay.” As the interrogation continues, everyone starts letting their hands show a little more as the truth slowly comes out in drips and drabs. However, even though we now know that the investigation dealt with Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, at that point those elements were still classified, so a crash of sound and instant darkness detonates at each redaction, excitingly jolting the audience. (The lighting is by Thomas Dunn, with sound by Lee Kinney.)
Satter (Straight White Men, House of Dance) casts no judgments on the characters, telling the story as it happened; your personal beliefs will help you decide if you think there are heroes or villains in the true story. Davis (Satter’s The Seagull [Thinking of You] and In the Pony Palace/Football) sublimely captures the essence of the nervous, jittery Winner, who spent six years in the Air Force, was employed by the military contractor Pluribus International Corporation, had NSA security clearance, speaks Farsi, Dari, and Pashto, and only wants to do what is right for her country; even though most of the audience knows the outcome, either by having followed the news or read the insert in the program, it is utterly compelling watching Davis as Winner is confronted with more and more evidence against her. The three actors portraying the FBI agents are all effective, with Simpson (Straight White Men, Gatz) standing out as Garrick, garnering sympathy despite his manipulative methods. Is This A Room is a riveting play that explodes with importance at a very specific moment in time when whistleblowers are harassed and threatened by people in power who are trying to cover up vital information.