Review: ‘Is This a Room’ at Vineyard Theatre

With a story ripped straight out of today’s headlines, Is This A Room offers a staged re-enactment of the verbatim transcript of the now-unclassified FBI interrogation of a whistleblower charged with leaking evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Playing a limited Off-Broadway engagement at Vineyard Theatre, the theatrical presentation of this real-life hot-button issue, conceived and directed by Tina Satter, hits the heights of drama and the lows of current American politics with resounding realism and nerve-wracking suspense.

Peter Simpson, TL Thompson, Emily Davis, and Becca Blackwell. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The date is June 3, 2017, and 25-year-old Reality Lee Winner, a former linguist in the Air Force, is confronted outside her home in Augusta, Georgia, by Special Agents Justin C. Garrick and R. Wallace Taylor of the FBI, armed with search warrants for her house and car, and soon joined by another “Unknown Male” who is there to assist. What begins with a matter-of-fact explanation of the reason for their visit, followed by small talk about her pets (who do “not like men”), her perishable groceries, and her exercise regimen, soon escalates into intense in-her-face questioning about her activities involving the downloading and release of secret documents to the media (which would result in her arrest, trial, and imprisonment, where she still remains, serving a five-year-and-three-month sentence under the Espionage Act).

Emily Davis turns in a psychologically and emotionally exacting characterization of Reality, capturing her growing anxiety in the uncomfortable situation of one lone young woman surrounded by three men who are there with the intent of intimidating her and eliciting a confession. Under Satter’s potent direction, her expressive body language speaks volumes, as she wrings her hands, shakes her leg, turns her head, and avoids eye contact with her interrogators. At times making jokes (about her weight, which she lied about on her driver’s license, and her photo of Anderson Cooper, which bears a bogus signature), at times talking too fast while weaving a web of obvious untruths and excuses, sometimes showing momentary relief as the conversation turns to other more amicable topics, and ultimately breaking down in tears from the stressful realization that she’s been caught, her agonizing portrayal is a tour-de-force.

Peter Simpson, Emily Davis, and TL Thompson. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

As Reality’s male antagonists, Pete Simpson, TL Thompson, and Becca Blackwell deliver the distinct personalities and approaches of the FBI specialists to their investigative work. Simpson, in the role of Agent Garrick, is serious, authoritarian, and by-the-book, in contrast with Thompson’s “good cop” demeanor as Agent Taylor, slyly feigning a sympathetic, protective, even paternalistic attitude to get the responses he wants from their suspect. And Blackwell, as their unidentified assistant, provides the physical (if not the intellectual) manpower, following the orders of the two interrogators, often out of sight and removed from the central action while searching and securing the house, then oddly asking the eponymous question, “is this a room?” (The men’s repeated uncertainty about how to use Reality’s cell phone, and misspellings in the transcription of Altun Ha and Lamanai – the Maya sites she visited in Belize and referred to in the recorded conversation – also suggest that FBI “intelligence” isn’t all that technically or culturally savvy; they could have googled the names for accuracy).

Close-up bare-bones staging, with audience seating on both sides of a grey platform in a black box space (set by Parker Lutz), and basic costumes that identify the true characters’ roles in the unsettling narrative (by Enver Chakartash), force the audience to focus intently on the unfolding of the increasingly disturbing direction and gravity of the interrogation, as Satter moves the cast around the empty space in a critical cat-and-mouse game. The inquiry is punctuated by dramatic flashes of light and blackouts (lighting by Thomas Dunn) that signal redacted portions of the text, segments of unclear sound (by Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada) that suggest inaudible portions of the transcribed tape, and unsettling original music (by Yamada) that heightens the already tense mood.

Even though we know the outcome, the profoundly compelling performance of Is This A Room at the Vineyard will keep you at the edge of your seat. And contrary to the Christian maxim, “The truth will set you free,” this extremely alarming incident proves that exposing the truth about dirty politics can, in fact, get you imprisoned.

Running Time: Approximately one hour, without intermission.

Is This A Room plays through Sunday, November 24, 2019, at the Vineyard Theatre – 108 East 15th Street, NYC. For tickets, call (212) 353-0303, or purchase them online.

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