“Is This a Room” and “Chicken & Biscuits” Bring the Unexpected to Broadway

The human ear edits even as it absorbs. Every time I listen to the recording of an interview that I did, I am confronted with the little repetitions and stutters that cling to what I treat, in the moment, as perfectly fluid speech: the tics and filler sentences; the muffled, incomplete sentences; the trail of false starts from which a thought flies. One thing that immediately stands out in the stellar Broadway staging of “Is This a Room” (a production of the Vineyard Theater, at the Lyceum) is the awkwardness of much of our speech, its weird hesitation, and its muddled banalities. That’s because the play, which was conceived and directed by Tina Satter, takes as its text the transcript of the FBI’s visit to the home of whistleblower Reality Winner on June 3, 2017. Whoever typed the Thing has preserved every hiccup and stutter with bizarre bureaucratic diligence, and the production pounces on its found script with perverse and courageous precision. How strange, how funny – how utterly terrifying – to see the state express its power not with a shout but with a mumble.

Reality Winner was a 25-year-old former Air Force language analyst who was working as a Farsi translator for a military contractor when the FBI came to interview her at her home in Augusta, Georgia. On stage, she is played by the remarkable Emily Davis, who created the role in the play’s premiere, The Kitchen, in 2019, and won an Obie and Lucille Lortel Award for her performance when she moved to the Vineyard, later that year. The reality we encounter, as the lights come on, is a stiff woman wearing cutouts and yellow Converse high shoes decorated with childish Pikachus, her blonde hair pulled back into a sexless bun. It’s not hard to imagine him in the military; she has the wand posture and modest manners of someone who knows how to take an order, or an insult, although she cannot hide her anxiety from the two FBI agents, Garrick (Pete Simpson) and Taylor (Will Cobbs) , who presented with search warrants. The winner is suspected, they explain, of “possible mismanagement of classified information,” and they would like to have a little chat with her. It is “completely voluntary”, of course. This is where Reality should shut its lips and call a lawyer. Instead, she starts talking and seals her fate.

What follows is sort of a jerky dance in the round, as Garrick and Taylor discover their suspect, and Winner does his best to help and embarrass the men. Interrogation scenes are a staple of American entertainment, and part of what we’re watching here is a representation of that performance. It’s there in the way the young and handsome Taylor growls and puffs his chest, as he must have seen a hundred actors doing playing officers and cops on television, and in the atmosphere of ambient threat. that Satter summons, with help from the eerie sound design of Lee Kinney and Sanae Yamada and cold, harsh lighting from Thomas Dunn. The scene itself is bare, except for a few low stands and a row of empty waiting room chairs posted behind the action, as if to suggest that other audience watching us all tirelessly: the device. ubiquitous surveillance.

But the threat to Reality continues to be undermined by the unintentional comedy of, well, reality. It takes officers a good chunk of the tense sixty-five minutes of the room to begin formal questioning, as the house needs to be searched first, and Reality’s weapons and animals – his possessions include a pink AR-15. and a nervous foster dog – treated. (“OK, so she doesn’t like men,” Reality says of her dog. A playwright couldn’t have found a better laugh line.) While the officers wait, they seem to be chuckling to the waist. human. They chat with Winner about pets and CrossFit. A clueless, mule backup guy (Becca Blackwell) wanders around, doing silly things. (Also silly: a large dog puppet that makes literal what the imagination finds no difficulty in conjuring up on its own.)

Chief of all this non-action is middle-aged Agent Garrick, a chaotic avuncular presence with a belly and a nervous cough. He really seems to want to curry the good graces of reality, to understand why such a dedicated and promising member of the military would risk his career – his life – to leak a document. Simpson is so dominant in the role of this deceptively mediocre career agent that he makes his virtuosity seem accidental, inevitable. The naturalism demanded by the script – all that trial and error and crosstalk – requires precise timing, and Simpson and Davis refined theirs with metronomic precision. It’s surprising, watching these two formidable actors go head to head against each other beat for beat, to realize just how much the actual Reality Winner has accepted the conventions of the genre in which she found herself trapped. there, teased by questioning, then volunteered with a hint of relief as the pace picks up and the stage is bathed in pulses of pink light to represent the writing of the official transcript. (We are reminded in the program, but not in the play itself, that the classified document Winner smuggled out of his office in his pantyhose concerned Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.) You may consider that Winner is a hero and a martyr – she was prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act and just returned to house arrest, after nearly four years behind bars – or maybe not. She herself insists that she did not consider her actions to be extraordinary. “I wasn’t trying to be a Snowden or anything,” she said. No matter what prompted her to speak out, she found a way to make the role her own.

It’s exciting and unusual to see a small downtown play like “Is This a Room” coming to Broadway. The abbreviated abbreviation of the 2020 theater season due to COVID had a positive effect: it allowed producers to take more creative risks, at least for now. Perhaps the experimental and documentary nature of “Is This a Room” would have made it seem too niche, too art-house, to bet on a more cautious season. But the show plays out like a thriller and should be a commercial highlight.

The same is true of “Chicken & Biscuits” (in Circle in the Square), another show hailed as a welcome surprise on Broadway, for entirely different reasons. Written by Douglas Lyons and directed by twenty-seven-year-old Zhailon Levingston, it’s an old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing comedy, a comedy as conventional as the convention comes. A funeral is held for the pastor of a New Haven church, but proceedings are threatened by a conflict between his two daughters, the prim Baneatta (Cleo King) and the boisterous Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver). Add in a cast of competing family members, plus a very anxious Jewish boyfriend (Michael Urie), and delusions ensue.

What makes the show unusual is that it is part of a record eight on Broadway this season to be written by a black playwright. Even more unusual is that he treats the dark experience as a subject to arouse pleasure and joy, rather than sober contemplation and pain. Would “Chicken & Biscuits”, which was set before the pandemic at the Queens Theater, have been staged on Broadway before last year’s protests against racial injustice prompted producers to take support for black labor seriously? Who knows, but when I attended a recent performance and heard the audience roar with laughter – an audience that, by the way, was more diverse than anything I remember seeing on Broadway – it was clear that the room had found the right home. . Are some of the hokey humor, the characters a little heavy on the caricature? Sure. Is the show too long? About twenty minutes. The priceless Norm Lewis, as Reginald Mabry, Baneatta’s husband and new church pastor, brings down the house while reveling in the spirit, and was it a pleasure to be introduced to Aigner Mizzelle, making his Broadway debut, as is the case with most of the cast — like La’Trice, a Gen Z-er with SoundCloud dreams and no indoor vocals? Yes, and absolutely yes. The show won’t be remembered for breaking new ground in the artistic realm, but it does offer something that has been dangerously lacking lately: a good time. ??

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