Why settle for one short, strange, surreal, deeply unsettling docudrama on Broadway when you can have two of them, playing together in repertory?
Before the pandemic, Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre produced “Is This A Room,” a theatrical rending of the interrogation of former NSA contractor Reality Leigh Winner using the verbatim FBI transcript, which opened on Broadway last week. Now, “Is This A Room” has been joined at the Lyceum Theatre by “Dana H.,” which was still running at the Vineyard Theatre at the time of the shutdown in March 2020.
Perhaps even more bizarre and experimental than “Is This A Room,” “Dana H.” is based on recorded interviews of Dana Higginbotham, in which she details her gruesome real-life account of being held hostage for five months. The interviews have been culled together and edited into a coherent one-woman drama by Higginbotham’s son, playwright Lucas Hnath (“A Doll’s House, Part 2,” “Hillary and Clinton”).
Deirdre O’Connell (who has numerous stage and screen credits include the recent TV drama “The Affair”) plays Higginbotham – with some help from Higginbotham herself. In an extremely unusual move, O’Connell meticulously lip-synchs to Higginbotham’s audio recordings, including all pause and, stammers. Somehow, it works.
While working nondenominational hospice chaplain in Florida in the 1990s, Higginbotham came into contact with Jim, a dangerously psychotic man who had a long criminal history and was associated with a notorious white supremacy group.
After being released from a psychiatric ward, Jim beats up and kidnaps Higginbotham and forces her to join him while he travels the country performing odd jobs on behalf of criminal associates. The production’s scenic design evokes the kind of rundown motel room that they would reside in throughout the ordeal.
All the while, Higginbotham finds herself unable to escape. “If you can envision a dog that’s been beaten so much that it no longer even tries to escape, it just sits there, that was me,” she says. Local police officers provide her with little to no help, even while they appear to be completely aware of her kidnapper’s identity.
For most of the 75-minute production, O’Connell sits in an armchair while telling her story, facing the audience. But in one disorienting segment, O’Connell disappears, even though the audio keeps running, and a housekeeper comes in and cleans the room for five minutes.
Higginbotham explains that the experience was profoundly traumatic, leaving lasting psychological damage, but suggests that the experience was so otherworldly that it has given her the ability to connect with people on the verge of death and about to enter another dimension.
Given the lip-synching and lack of movement on the part of O’Connell, one may wonder why “Dana H.” needs to be a live piece of theater rather than a true crime podcast or a raw testimonial video on YouTube. But at its best, the production (directed by Les Waters, who has also staged other plays by Hnath) is compelling, terrifying, and multilayered, especially with regard to the nature of reality.
“Is This A Room” and “Dana H.” (which should be viewed together) give one hope that experimental theater may gain a regular presence on Broadway in the post-pandemic future.
149 W. 45th St., thelyceumplays.com. Through Jan. 15.