A young Air Force vet named Reality Winner sits in jail today, serving a sentence under the Espionage Act for leaking a document that showed proof of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. That’s pretty much a verbatim copy of a flier that theatergoers can pick up outside the theater after seeing “Is This a Room,” which opened Monday at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre.
“Is This a Room” is conceived and directed by Tina Satter and written by no one because, as the flier says, it’s “the word-for-word transcript of the F.B.I.’s visit to Reality Winner’s house on June 3, 2017.” We don’t learn anything about the leaked classified material. Whenever any specific information is about to be spoken by one of the four actors, those words have been redacted. It’s here that Satter’s direction, Thomas Dunn’s lighting, and Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada’s sound design join together to create theatrical ellipses. The lights change or go out completely, and an ominous booming noise rocks the theater.
If you saw “Is This a Room” not knowing anything about Reality Winner, you’d have no idea she had anything to do with the Russian interference crisis. If this is the case, the staged transcript — let’s not call it a play — offers a vivid portrait of group male intimidation of a woman. The FBI team features a good cop (Pete Simpson), a bad cop (TL Thompson) and a clown cop (Becca Blackwell, who even sports orange hair). As Reality Winner, Emily Davis suffers a slow meltdown into near-hysteria as the men, search warrant in hand, literally invade her personal space. The title refers to a room in her house where the interrogation takes place.
Satter often brings the men so close to Davis that the actors inhale each other’s breath. It’s a harrowing situation, and the four actors handle the circuitous, often-repetitious dialogue as if it were a new, good play by David Mamet. But the agents’ physical proximity to Winner contradicts the text, which shows the men’s extreme attention to strict protocol. They’re careful to the point of being persnickety in the handling of their duties, regardless of what you think of those duties.
At 70 minutes, “Is This a Room” begs for context, and that post-theater flier isn’t enough. Satter needs a first or second act to run with this staged transcript. What she needs is a playwright.
And, do people really pay above-Netflix prices for evenings like this in the theater?