Review: Is This A Room Dramatizes a Real-Life Encounter With the FBI
One of the best off-Broadway shows of 2019 transfers to Broadway.
On June 3, 2017, FBI agents approached Air Force veteran and NSA contractor Reality Winner in the driveway of her Augusta, Georgia, home. They had reason to believe Winner had leaked a classified document to The Intercept concerning Russian interference in the 2016 election, and they had a search warrant. Director Tina Satter uses the real (and heavily redacted) transcript of that encounter as the script for her play Is This A Room, which is currently causing pulses to race and hair to stand at attention inside Broadway's Lyceum Theatre.
The show last played New York in 2019 during the most thrilling season at the Vineyard Theatre I can recall (Dana H., another highlight of that season, rotates performances with Is This A Room). The production arrives on Broadway largely unchanged, the biggest difference being the casting of Will Cobbs at Agent Taylor. He's one of two interrogating agents, with Pete Simpson playing Agent Garrick. Both ask Winner (Emily Davis) about weapons in the house before allowing the unnamed third member of their team (Becca Blackwell) to search the premises.
Realizing that she's about to be in a whole lot of trouble, Winner becomes most concerned about the welfare of her two pets, should she be taken away: "I feel like you're – if I ask you, like, what's going to happen to me, you're going to say that you don't know at this point, so that's kind of my only concern," she tells the agents right as the dam holding back her emotions breaks, "And my ability to keep these two animals alive." It's a moment that few pet owners in the audience will be able to resist.
As Winner, Davis delivers the most anxiety-inducing performance on any Broadway stage. She conjures the childlike dread of being caught red-handed and projects that into the hearts of every audience member so that we immediately understand.
Cobbs and Simpson assist with their own nervous energy, approaching Winner in an aggressively cordial manner that doesn't preclude the possibility that she could be the leader of an undiscovered terrorist cell. Cobbs repeats that their chat is completely "voluntary," while exhibiting body language that makes it clear she really doesn't have a choice. We question whether Simpson's dorky "good cop" routine is all an act within an act, as he seems to drop it instantly when he thinks Winner has revealed something damning, like when she admits folding a classified document in half (this helped to identify Winner as the leaker after The Intercept reached out to the NSA to verify the authenticity of the document). Meanwhile, Blackwell moves about the stage snapping photos and speaking code into a noisy phone. The whole exercise feels extremely violating.
Satter emphasizes Winner's exposure through staging and design: Parker Lutz's open set design suggests a landscape in which Winner has nowhere to hide, while Enver Chakartash's historically faithful costume design reveals Winner to be completely outclassed next to the FBI agents wearing body armor. Thomas Dunn's lighting design flashes magenta whenever the actors reach a redacted part of the script, and an ominous sound cue takes the place of speech (unsettling sound design by Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada). A small black cat peeks out from around the proscenium arch, eyes wide at the sight of intruders (uncanny puppet design by Amanda Villalobos).
While Satter remains true to the words of the transcript, she and Yamada (who also composed original music) are able to manipulate our perception of events through strategic underscoring and pacing: At one point, the agents go into slow-motion as Winner does an impression of her fat and sassy cat (the play is full of little moments of comic relief). At other times, Winner sounds like a podcast that has been set to 1.5X. All of these elements work together to make an unnerving 65 minutes that is nevertheless not as upsetting as I remember it being two years ago.
What has changed since the off-Broadway run? Most superficially, Is This A Room is in a larger space, in which we do not feel as confined as we did at the Vineyard. While Lutz has retained a line of chairs upstage, the production does not seat a single row of lonely audience members there, as it did off-Broadway. All of this contributes to a staging that feels less menacing than it once did.
There have also been developments in the real world: Sentenced to five years, three months in prison for her role in the leak, Winner was released on good behavior to a halfway house earlier this year. The outrage liberals once felt about the election of Donald Trump has subsided following the election of Joe Biden. And one of the major sources of that outrage — the notion that Russia helped steal the 2016 election for Trump — has also faded for lack of evidence (the report Winner leaked was about spear-phishing e-mails sent by Russian intelligence in an attempt to access voter registration rolls, although there is no indication that these rolls were in any way compromised). In just a few years, a viable explanation for the most shocking presidential election of my life has started to look a lot more like the cranky delusion of sore losers — much like the unfounded idea that voting software companies stole the 2020 election for Joe Biden.
These historical factors are beyond the production's direct control, but they make a difference in how I experienced Is This A Room, as I imagine they will for other viewers. A topical subject has the potential to harness all of the emotions the audience is already feeling about that subject, but that special power wanes with distance and hindsight.
Still, the questions I raised in my 2019 review remain: What right does our government have to keep so many secrets from us when we are paying for their collection? Is that program of widespread classification benefiting the national security of the United States of America, or is it diverting resources to the prosecution of concerned citizens like Winner, while the real spies of hostile foreign powers gain the upper hand? Like 2019's What the Constitutional Means to Me, Is This A Room asks these important questions about our republic on a Broadway stage. That's a happy development for anyone who believes in the ability of the theater to do more than just entertain.