Everyone knows more than they let on at the top of “Is This a Room,” a taut and pulse-prickling docudrama conceived and directed by Tina Satter. That includes audiences who are likely familiar with the still-unfolding story of Reality Winner, a former NSA contractor who was arrested and imprisoned for leaking government secrets.
A voice in the dark clearly states what we’re about to hear: the verbatim, chronological transcript of Winner’s arrest at her home in Augusta, Ga., on June 3, 2017. The Justice Department had barrelled down with startling swiftness: Charges were brought against Winner just one hour after the NSA’s dirty laundry hit the air. (Winner, who received the longest-ever sentence for such a crime, was released on good behavior in June.)
The contents of the slim envelope Winner slipped to the press and how they became public — details redacted here with a grim flourish — are almost entirely beside the point. (Google and you’ll know: classified reports on election interference by Russian operatives, to online news source The Intercept.) This reenactment digs for something far deeper.
Consider “Is This a Room” a ripped-from-the-headlines tale that pries beneath the ink, ratcheting in so close to the events in question that their particulars fall out of focus. What’s under Satter’s microscope aren’t the facts, but their cosmic resonance and mundane imprints on the body: sweat behind the knees, a gentle but persistent cough, conscience, power, the provenance of truth.
A coy and unnerving dance begins the moment three FBI agents approach Winner’s door, to the tune of feigned innocence. In a stunning and uncannily naturalistic star turn from Emily Davis, Winner is much like a typical 25 year old — a bit jumpy, flighty, even, devoted to her anxious rescue dog, carb-crazed cat, and competitive fitness.
She is also, of course, a trained Air Force officer and cryptologic linguist who has just committed a major federal crime. That a young woman, dressed unassumingly in denim cut-offs, a white Oxford, and canary-yellow Converse, blonde hair in a neat bun, can be all this and more at the same time is among the play’s central assertions, however obvious.
The FBI transcript, and the drama it drives on stage, is likewise a mash-up of the remarkable and ordinary. There’s the plainclothes good cop, Agent Garrick, played with a deceptive aw-shucks carriage by Pete Simpson. There’s Agent Taylor (Will Cobbs), so inscrutable that at times he embodies the wall that Winner’s back is up against. And Becca Blackwell as the third, least verbal and most intimidating agent (referred to only as only ‘Unknown Male’ in the text) who hovers around the scene with an almost sexual menace.
As the title hints, “Is This a Room” is as much about atmosphere as the words it enacts. The thick, humid air on Winner’s front lawn trills with lazy crickets. Garbled yelps from a walkie-talkie sound distorted, staticky, almost extraterrestrial. Darkness functions as punctuation.
The set design by Parker Lutz suggests an elongated interrogation room, nearly bare but for slightly raised platforms on either side and a row of plastic chairs at the back. Thomas Dunn’s lighting, and sound by Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada (who also composed original music) swell the stage with an ominous expectancy, one that’s occasionally a touch too knowing.
Satter, who serves as artistic director of the theater company Half Straddle, performs an impressive sleight of hand, coaxing suspense from a foregone conclusion like a rabbit from a hat. Satter’s choreographic staging is marked by striking tableaux, as the agents circle their prey with a levity that grows cold — gradually, and then all at once.
Originally presented downtown in fall 2019, and now playing in repertory with another docudrama from the Vineyard Theatre, Lucas Hnath’s “Dana H,” the once-intimate production has been notably scaled-up for Broadway. But at a brisk 65 minutes, “Is This a Room” may seem an especially hearty amuse bouche, a taste of formal innovation and thoughtful provocation that also primes the appetite for more.
If any element of the production is worth the uptown price tag, it’s Davis in a kinetic and magnetizing debut. Her Winner is not “some big bad mastermind,” as Agent Taylor puts it, but she is an expertly artless performer — of duty, fealty, and even a kind of purity.
What ultimately drives Winner to the brink isn’t being found out. (“Obviously, yeah. Crap,” she says, when the agents finally cop to why they’ve come.) It’s the thought of not being able to keep alive her two pets, whose fragile animality animates the stakes from the outset. Come for the topical drama; stay for the doggie-parent small talk between bouts of interrogation.
Winner is extraordinary, not just for the crime she committed but for the sprawl of her intellect and achievements. But she is also so much like anyone else. In her position, who wouldn’t have done the same?
“Why do I have this job if I’m just going to sit back and be helpless,” Winner finally blurts of her impulsive motive. It’s a confession as close to illuminating the human condition as any.