Or maybe it’s simply the gut-grabbing sense of dread that suffuses the Lyceum Theatre — where the verbatim docudrama had its official Broadway opening Monday — as a team of FBI agents intimidates the nervous Winner into a confession that will end in disaster.
“Is This a Room” takes its title from a casual question tossed off by one of the agents during this jarring, 70-minute dramatization, reproduced entirely from law enforcement transcripts, of the FBI’s execution of search warrants at Winner’s Augusta, Ga., home on June 3, 2017. The transcripts were part of the legal proceedings. Satter’s staging and the portrayals by Davis and — as the agents — Pete Simpson, Will Cobbs and Becca Blackwell, convey with stunning exactitude both the bland unfolding and the extraordinary consequences of the event.
That’s the work in its entirety: including both the arrival of the agents, repeatedly and cagily assuring Winner that her cooperation is voluntary, and Winner’s slightly manic, self-incriminating revelations about what she did, and why. The fullness of her admission, the almost comically ingratiating manner of her interrogators, and the doleful, coercive shape of the encounter give the proceedings a fascinating dramatic impetus.
You will gain a far better understanding of the psychodynamics of how police agencies impose their will by sitting through “Is This a Room” than you would most streamed crime procedurals. (And I’ve watched enough Nordic, British, French and other noir series over the course of the pandemic to qualify for a global law degree.) The emotional dimension of the production evolves as you begin to empathize with Winner, who, despite her military and security background, seems never to have thought of the advice a member of the audience desperately wants to blurt out: “Stop talking and call a lawyer!”
“Is This a Room” was a hit for off-Broadway’s 132-seat Vineyard Theatre in December 2019, just months before the pandemic shut down theaters nationwide. It has been moved to the 950-seat Lyceum, where it is playing in rotation with another Vineyard-minted play, “Dana H.” by Lucas Hnath (“A Doll’s House Part 2”), a verbatim monologue about the real-life hostage-taking of the playwright’s own mother. Starring Deirdre O’Connell, “Dana H.,” which I saw at the Vineyard, has its official opening on Sunday.
These exceptionally well-acted and ferociously original pieces should be sleeper hits on Broadway. But one worries that an expanding, potential glut of productions — at a time when insiders report that ticket sales are sluggish across the board — might make such an outcome a true uphill battle. With the exception of breakout commercial hits with popular titles such as the recently restarted “To Kill a Mockingbird,” nonmusical plays almost always face unfavorable odds for Broadway longevity.
In any event, “Is This a Room” casts a curiously irresistible spell: We seize up with foreboding as we absorb the beginnings of a legal case that has since become a symbol of government overreach. Winner did, apparently, mail a classified document, about Russian interference in U.S. elections, to an online news outlet. But her severe prison sentence — 5 years, 3 months — was the longest ever imposed for the crime with which she was charged. (Winner was transferred in June to a halfway house to serve the remainder of her term.)
Satter, whose Brooklyn-based Half Straddle theater company premiered the play at off-off-Broadway’s the Kitchen before its Vineyard run, stages “Is This a Room” with minimal embellishment, a few sound effects, stuffed animals to represent Winner’s pet rescues and a lighting design by Thomas Dunn that flashes purple each time the dialogue bumps up against an FBI redaction. The interrogation outside Winner’s house, led by Simpson’s Agent Garrick, comes across as both banal and calculated; no doubt the technique would seem less effective with a less garrulous target.
“I don’t think you’re a big master spy,” the G-man confides to Winner at one point.
“Guess I won’t be going back to work on Monday,” Winner remarks at another.
Davis is a compulsively watchable marvel at the center of the dramatization. The performance is at once agreeably transparent and enigmatic — perhaps like Winner herself, a young, accomplished translator of Pashto and Dari who teaches yoga and keeps multiple guns, even an automatic rifle, in the house. The scratchy agitation in Davis’s voice adds to the atmosphere of high anxiety: Adolescent naivete competes in this portrayal with an adult’s more-assured understanding about the wrongs in the world that need to be righted.
Accompanying the discomfort you may feel with the way Winner has been treated — her own recorded voice is heard at evening’s end — is an overarching sadness. “Is This a Room” in its understated way expresses with full-throated clarity something seriously out of whack in our political system.
Is This a Room, conceived and directed by Tina Satter. Set, Parker Lutz; costumes, Enver Chakartash; original music, Sanae Yamada; sound, Yamada and Lee Kinney. About 70 minutes. $39-$199. Through Jan. 15 at Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., New York. 212-239-6200. telecharge.com.