Short of grocery lists, raw transcripts may be the most boring things ever written. With their halts and hesitations and dust bunnies of fuzzy logic, they beg to be thoroughly tidied before use, and disposed of quickly after.
Nevertheless, a 65-minute verbatim transcript has now become the basis for one of the thrillingest thrillers ever to hit Broadway. “Is This a Room,” which opened on Monday at the Lyceum Theater, turns the ums and stutters and bizarre non sequiturs of recorded speech into astonishing — and astonishingly emotional — theater.
How does mind-numbing banality become heart-racing excitement? In “Is This a Room,” the transcript is only the starting point. More salient is the way the production, conceived and directed by Tina Satter, views the document through an expressionistic lens, allowing Emily Davis, in a heartbreaking performance, to make words into windows on a world of interior terror.
Davis plays the ironically named (yet quite real) Reality Winner, who on June 3, 2017, returning from some Saturday chores, finds F.B.I. men waiting outside the barely furnished house she rents in Augusta, Ga. They have come, one of them tells her, “about, uh, possible mishandling of classified information.”
“Oh my goodness,” she replies. “Okay.”
At first you believe her when she insists she has “no idea” what the agents are referring to. In cutoff denim shorts, a white button-down shirt and yellow high-tops that perfectly replicate what Winner wore that day — the costumes are by Enver Chakartash — she seems like a teenager. She often sounds like one too, with a hiccuppy delivery and an excuse-my-existence upspeak.
But she is 25, keeps three guns and, as she later confirms, has top-secret clearance with a local military contractor, where she works as a linguist specializing in Farsi, Dari and Pashto.
If those languages of South and Central Asia make you think Winner has mishandled documents about the war in Afghanistan, that’s a red herring — or rather, a pink one; wherever the F.B.I. transcript redacts information as sensitive, as it does when the specific subject of the leak is discussed, the stage lights blink pink for a moment. A scary “Law & Order”-style thunk may also jolt you from your seat.
The superb lighting (by Thomas Dunn) and sound (by Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada) are just two weapons in Satter’s arsenal of disorienting effects. Aiming, as she recently told The New York Times, to imagine what “Reality is feeling second by second,” she avoids naturalism, which would hide those feelings — there’s barely a set — in favor of an almost sculptural abstraction, increasing and abating tension by the shaping and massing of bodies in space.
So as the interview zips along, and Winner, a CrossFit aficionado, realizes she has been caught in an action she can barely justify even to herself, we watch as she seems to decompose muscle by muscle. Her hands wring and flop, her hips give way and finally her torso drops perpendicular to the floor so her tears drip down as if from a leaky showerhead.
It’s hard not to cry with her, especially when “Is This a Room,” named for a strange question asked by one of the agents, gets you there without gimmicks. It does not present Winner as a lefty firebrand or a noble whistle-blower but as a maddeningly squirmy, fed-up desk jockey.
Nor are the agents demonized. Pete Simpson as the smiley one, Will Cobbs as the wary one and Becca Blackwell as a hilariously oblivious “unknown male” all excel at mitigating their implicit menace with varieties of insouciance. Still, their glad-handing and good ol’ boy chivalry barely disguise their own nervousness; they are just as lost in their absurd script as Winner is in hers, whether huddling in a pack as if to man up or getting right in her face with small talk.
Yet has small talk ever seemed so big? Though at least half of the transcript finds the men aimlessly — almost flirtatiously — gabbing with Winner about their own CrossFit experiences and pets they have known, eventually they can’t help revealing a subtext too deep and cold for words. That subtext concerns gender, and part of the fear you feel for Winner comes from the unequal distribution of the sexes. She feels it too: When she offers the information that her dog and cat, both female, “don’t like men,” she adds, in a joke that curdles instantly, “Starting to see a trend here.”
Indeed. Winner, who later admitted guilt in a plea bargain, was the first person sentenced under the Espionage Act after President Trump cracked down on leaks upon entering office. According to a Times report, hers was the longest sentence — more than five years — “ever imposed in federal court for an unauthorized release of government information to the media.” And even though she was granted an early release this June for “exemplary behavior,” she is still prohibited from making public statements or appearances.
Plays based on transcripts would seem to face a similar prohibition, their verbatim nature acting as a hard brake on editorial indulgence. (Another transcript-based play, “Dana H.,” by Lucas Hnath, opens next week at the Lyceum, where it will run on an alternating schedule with “Is This a Room.”) Yet in practice, such works are sometimes richer than fiction, if not in words then in implication.
For me, the implications of “Is This a Room” are clear. The documents Winner leaked to a publication called The Intercept contained proof of Russian interference in the 2016 election, interference President Trump was at pains to deny. However wrong her actions, I find it difficult not to connect the dots between her excessive punishment and Mr. Trump’s many other attempts to shame and silence women, whether Stormy Daniels, E. Jean Carroll or Christine Blasey Ford.
Far from mitigating the play’s power, such hindsight deepens it; it’s a story that can’t be spoiled. Even if you saw “Is This a Room” when Satter’s company, Half Straddle, premiered it Off Off Broadway at the Kitchen in January 2019, or at the Vineyard Theater later that year, its drama would not be diminished now.
That’s because, to the extent it is a mystery, the question is not what Winner did but what doing it did to her. “Is This a Room” asks whether it’s possible to live in a lawless world without becoming lawless ourselves. Is there a room for that? The answer, I’m afraid, is not in the transcript.
Is This a Room
Through Jan. 16 at the Lyceum Theater, Manhattan; thelyceumplays.com. Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes.