'Is This A Room' review - a 'boundary-breaking' thriller of a play
What if you were interrogated by the FBI? You might think it would be like something out of The X Files, with a dimly lit room and intimidating agents in suits relentlessly questioning you with dramatic exclamations. But in Is This A Room, which is based on the transcript of a real-life FBI interrogation, being questioned by federal agents is seemingly more low-key than you expect — though no less anxiety-inducing.
The subject being questioned in Is This A Room is Reality Winner, a 25-year-old Air Force intelligence specialist. In 2017, Winner was imprisoned for leaking NSA documents that proved that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Since her imprisonment, Winner has become the subject of fascination among political pundits, particularly late-night talk show hosts such as Trevor Noah and Samantha Bee, with Bee advocating for clemency for Winner, because of how her actions made the 2020 elections more secure.
Is This A Room is set on one particular day: June 3, 2017, when the FBI visited Winner at her home in Augusta, Georgia. The play stages the interrogation in real time, where, for over an hour, the FBI gets Winner to confess to what she did why. Is This A Room was a hit when it premiered Off Broadway, and it is currently playing on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre.
"What I'd like to is sit down, talk you with a...talk with you about it," says FBI Agent Garrick, played by Pete Simpson, to Winner (Emily Davis, in a star-making turn). "And of course, you...completely voluntary to talk to me."
Garrick says it's voluntary, but Is This A Room is as much about subtext as it is about what is in those transcripts. And as the other male FBI agents surround Winner, it's clear she has nowhere to run.
Tina Satter, who conceived and directed the show, made the genius choice to include all of the ums and truncated sentences from the original transcript, showing all of us that in real life, FBI agents talk as inelegantly as us regular civilians. Yet despite how innocuous and congenial the FBI may seem, the lighting from Thomas Dunn and sound cues from Sanae Yamada and Lee Kinney sustain the mood of dread throughout (the sound cues also smartly fill in for the redacted portion of the transcript).
Yet Winner is not a shrinking violet. Instead, she feigns ignorance and tries to throw the agents off her scent. As performed by Davis, Winner does not betray much nervousness, not in her voice or her body language. Except, and this is key, the twitches in her fingers or the way she doesn't quite make eye contact when speaking.
The genius of the performance of the entire cast is the contradiction between what they are saying and what is actually the truth. They may be talking about pet care and Crossfit, but they all also know that Winner committed a crime. None of them can say that, though, and it is the tension of who will fold first that makes Is This A Room as taut and thrilling as any episode of Law & Order.
At the same time, that's also what makes Broadway, perhaps, not the ideal venue for this gem of a play. The Lyceum is a huge theatre, with an orchestra and two mezzanine sections. And yet the play depends on the audience being able to see every flash of emotion that flies, almost imperceptibly, across Davis's face, as she tries to not crack under the pressure of the interrogation. It's an engrossing and almost cinematic performance. Yet I am not sure how well it would register to people sitting in the back of the mezzanine. Is that tension between the words they are hearing and what Davis is actually doing as evident from the back row?
This isn't to say that Is This A Room shouldn't be on Broadway. Any opportunity to have such boundary-breaking work seen by a larger audience should be celebrated. Is This A Room also makes the case for the need to have commercial Off-Broadway venues where more hit plays that benefit from a more intimate setting can run for longer than two months at a time.
Yet I was grateful to be able to revisit the play, especially because at the end, there is a new element that made the audience gasp. For almost the entire play, we watch Winner perform a mask of herself. At the end of this new version of the play, we can finally hear Winner's true voice. (However, the play would have benefitted from making clear how Winner's action was key to the outcome of the 2020 election.)
What makes Is This A Room important, besides being a portrait of a modern-day hero, is how it shows the inherent tension, sometimes contraction, between the letter of the law and what is truly the right thing to do.
Originally published on