Review | FBI transcript inspires Broadway drama ‘Is This A Room’

USA – Is This A Room – New York, New York
Cast of Is This A Room photographed at Lyceum Theatre in Manhattan.
Photo: Chad Batka

There’s a first time for everything in the theater – even taking a verbatim FBI transcript and turning it into a disturbing and unexpectedly compelling 65-minute docudrama. 

 “Is This A Room,” which dramatizes the real-life interrogation of former NSA contractor Reality Leigh Winner by FBI agents who showed up outside her home in Augusta, Georgia, may be the most unlikely show to materialize on Broadway this fall. 

Then again, the same could probably be said about “Dana H.,” another short and strange and acclaimed docudrama that is running in repertory with “Is This a Room” at the Lyceum Theatre. Both shows were produced Off-Broadway by the Vineyard Theatre prior to the pandemic. 

In 2017, the 25-year-old Winner had just left the Air Force and was working in Georgia as an NSA contractor, using her linguistic abilities to translate aerospace records from Farsi into English. This sunny, polite, physically-fit, intelligent young woman hardly seemed like the kind of person who would be accused of the “possible mishandling of classified information.”

In spite of the uncomfortable circumstances, Reality (played by Emily Davis with remarkable subtlety) and the FBI agents (Will Cobbs, Pete Simpson, and Becca Blackwell) try to engage in polite conversation about pets, yoga, and guns. It turns out that Reality owns multiple firearms including a pink AR-15.

After professing ignorance over why these men have materialized at her doorstep, the truth eventually comes out: Reality printed out a classified intelligence report and leaked it to a news publication, and the leak has been traced back to her. (The report itself, which is not discussed in detail during the show, related to attempted Russian hacking of state election systems during the 2016 presidential election.)

The FBI transcript is choppy, repetitive, and dull. However, “Is This A Room” (which was conceived and directed by Tina Satter) is primarily concerned with what is not said – theatricalizing the tension, uncertainty, and awkwardness of the interrogation experience through body language. The production also employs hazy lighting, sudden blackouts, overlapping voices, pauses, and a dissonant score and sound design. 

As it happens, Reality (who pled guilty in 2018 to violating the Espionage Act and was sentenced to more than five years in prison) was recently transferred to home confinement in Texas. Perhaps someday she can play herself in a production of the play.

One can’t help but wonder whether the show’s unusually short running time will affect its commercial appeal. While one can argue that theatergoers paying Broadway ticket prices will not accept a show that is just a bit longer than a one-hour TV drama, others may be happy to see something that is, if not short and sweet, short and sharp as a knife. Doesn’t that sound a lot better than sitting through a show that is both mediocre and long?

Is This A Room” runs at the Lyceum Theatre with “Dana H.” with Jan. 15. 149 W. 45th St., thelyceumplays.com.