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‘Is This A Room’ Puts Reality on Stage

A review of Is This a Room by Christian Lewis | October 11, 2021

Reality has become a tricky, increasingly-elusive concept. With heavily-edited “reality” television, overly-curated social media profiles, and politically-minded accusations of “fake news,” the definition of what counts as “reality” is hazy at best. Is This A Room, conceived and directed by Tina Satter, puts this debate center stage by using an FBI interrogation transcript as the basis for a piece of verbatim theater.

In it, we see and hear every word of the June 3rd, 2017 FBI interrogation of Reality Winner (played by Emily Davis), a former Air Force intelligence specialist who was suspected of leaking a confidential document to the press. The text is not edited; we hear it exactly as it happened, we get to see the reality of the situation—or at least the reality of what made it into the heavily-redacted transcript.

Is This A Room was produced in 2019 off-Broadway by the Vineyard Theatre along with Lucas Hnath’s Dana H., another piece of documentary theatre; the two plays are now playing in repertory on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre. This rare double billing brings some experimental off-Broadway theater to Broadway.

The two make a fascinating pairing. In Dana H. Hnath presents an edited, out-of-order version of an interview. Is This A Room gives us the exact transcript, word for word, in order, getting closer to “reality.”

Despite being “just” an FBI transcript, Satter’s dramatic staging, Parker Lutz’s sparse set design, and Thomas Dunn’s oppressive lights (which flare or black out to signal redacted text) create a uniquely theatrical experience. The four actors in the ensemble move about the space in often non-realistic ways that heighten the tension of the interrogation. This plays into questions about reality, for although we know exactly what was said, we have no way of knowing precisely what went on in that room. All we have is the words; our minds (or in this case Satter’s mind) have to fill in the rest.

Is This A Room forces us to question what reality is and what realism is. The transcript has characters talking over each other, mumbling, coughing, trailing off, much in the way that real people talk, but not in the way theatrical characters do. We don’t get exposition where we expect it. The conversation isn’t linear. The interrogation doesn’t follow dramaturgical structures or dramatic plot pyramids. It’s therefore, in theory, untheatrical in some ways.

However, it also explores just how theatrical every day life can be, and in particular how much performance there is in an interrogation. Both the FBI agents and Reality are putting on a show, playing roles. They all pretend they don’t know as much as they actually do, trying to act friendly and accommodating while manipulating each other. The play proves that an interrogation is already inherently theatrical, a play script in and of itself.

The gender dynamics of the piece, and of the interrogation, are impossible to ignore: three male FBI agents arrive to interrogate a 25 year-old woman at her home. They frequently mention a warrant, but they delay giving it to her, and when they do, they don’t really allow her to read it (Satter has them throw it on the ground, where it remains the entire play). They never read Reality her Miranda rights. They subtly attack her as a group, intimidating her like a pack slowly hunting prey.

Pete Simpson (Agent Garrick), Will Cobbs (Agent Taylor), and Becca Blackwell (“unknown male,” which is how their character is listed in the playbill and the transcript) combine to form a hydra-like force, weaving in and out to question Reality, overwhelm her, distract her, and try to catch her off guard. They make small talk. They good cop/bad cop. Toward the end, they finally put their cards on the table, end all chit chat, stuttering, and throat clearing, instead asking direct questions and revealing they have clear evidence against her.

At odds with this mighty foe is the extraordinary Davis as Reality. She masterfully manages to balance the complexity of her real-life character, who did commit espionage, though for a noble reason. Throughout the quietly grueling interrogation she holds her own, even as the vultures circle her. Davis’ Reality is empathetic, and she easily gets the audience on her side. She isn’t an evil spy; more than anything else she cares about her cat and her adopted foster dog. When it becomes clear that she is going to be taken to jail, it is her pets she worries about.

Reality was sentenced to over five years in prison, the longest sentence of its kind for this type of crime; on June 22nd, 2021 she was released early for good behavior. Is This A Room offers us an unedited slice of her very real, ongoing story. It’s a visionary work that will certainly help put documentary theater back on the map, while also making us question what is even real.

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