The In-Person Experience: Is This A Room/Dana H. on Broadway
Two very true stories are being played out in rep at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway, each from wildly different perspectives and opposing alternative pathways. Their backgrounds register, as the similarities are striking and complex while making their differing packagings obvious yet surreal. They both find their own unique pathways in order to present these moments of intense stress, deserving the intense scrutiny given by the playwrights to their construction. Having both traveled uptown from the Vineyard Theatre, they have maintained their sharp downtown edge giving the Broadway crowd something quite different to chew on. But will they be embraced? My hope is yes.
Dana H., a compellingly disturbing play that I did see before when it played down at the Vineyard, stamps its utterly unique inventiveness in a precise intense way, while the captivating Is This A Room, a play I missed when it was downtown, steps its own way forward in a more straightforward process, with both constructs parleying out their detailed true stories with a strong sense of purpose and intensity. They are cut from the same cloth, but with a completely different assembly strategy. Luckily, they both find their way into our collective head, delivering events so traumatic and emotionally scarring that it is hard to understand completely how these things could have actually happened. It’s compelling drama to hear their stories, and consider how these two women who sit, or determinedly stand, in the center of the room could possibly have endured them, but thankfully, we are invited to take their overarching exactness in and process with the empathetic dignity that they so rightfully deserve.
Dana H. is an astonishing piece of creative craftsmanship and conceptualization. It’s a play, without being written as such. It has a drive and a power in its solid construction, but in that formulation, it has been sliced up and pieced together with a solid deliberation for the art of deposition. The woman seated upright and nervous in its center hasn’t spoken about her trauma to anyone for many many years. So this is, in a way, a tense gift of acknowledgment, by invitation only. It’s hard to describe the dramatic framework that is being presented most deliberately here, other than to say that it rolls itself out like a cassette player, delivering a thoroughly perplexing recorded memory play orchestrated by the always-fascinating writer Lucas Hnath (The Doll’s House, Part 2; Hillary and Clinton). Dana H., the play, focuses its very personal lens on an experience that took place over twenty years ago when the playwright was in school at NYU. The playwright’s eye is focused quite intently on his own mother, Dana, who has quite the disturbing story to tell. And unlike any other play I have ever seen, Hnath is doubly determined to have his own mother’s voice literally heard by all as clearly and authentically as humanly possible. It’s quite a feat of strength and persistence, this unpacking, resonating a certain type of bravery from all involved.
It’s pretty impressive, the construct and the recorded formula. In 2015, Hnath’s perplexing curiosity made him ask his fellow theatre-making friend, Steve Cosson to interview his mother over a period of several days about the timeframe in 1998 when he was in school at NYU that she has kept silent about. The conversations were recorded. She talked, and he listened, something akin to a therapy session. Now I am a psychotherapist in the real world, and it’s clear to see that Cosson was, at least in these orchestrations, by no means a qualified therapist. His delivery stutters and stalls with a hesitant shocked quality, making the drama, surprisingly, even more vivid and difficult. It must have been overwhelming for anyone who was present or who listened to the tapes, but Cosson stayed the course, being curious and interested as he assisted her through the telling of her traumatic story. She unpacks with a stuttered sense of purpose, revealing the truth about a truly devastatingly difficult series of incidents that took place in 1997 (while Hnath was away at NYU).
Played out intricately and succinctly in an armchair with a cheap motel room as a telling backdrop, a harrowing story of violence and abduction unfolds, courtesy of some clever strong work by scenic designer Andrew Boyce (NYTW’s runboyrun, In Old Age), with extremely sharp lighting and subtitle design by Paul Toben (Studio Theatre’s The Wolves). She doesn’t really want any light shone on her five-month kidnapping. It’s uncomfortable for her to talk about it. She’d rather keep the story to herself, as those five months when she was violently kidnapped and held against her will, would shake the core of anyone who has been forcibly removed from their family and their life in that way. The trauma and the shattering of Dana H., the person, have played havoc with her insides, fracturing the ideas of her memory, recollection, and personal storytelling for far too long. To get some sort of inner salvation, some light needs to come into that hotel room, so life, in a way, can return to the living, and maybe reconnect to those parts of her life she feels she might have lost in the process.
But here’s where the nuance begins, and the otherness of the delivery sets in. An accomplished actress, the magnificent Deirdre O’Connell (MTC’s Fulfillment Center) takes on the damaged Dana H., embodying the woman’s every move while never actually making a sound. She, instead, lip-syncs her words throughout the performance with a startling and purposeful precision, melting the two frameworks together in a blinding act of magic and adhesion. It’s deafeningly exact, assisted by the fine work of illusionist and lip-sync consultant Steve Cuiffo (Signature’s Old Hats), but it is in O’Connell’s perfect dedication to the real woman where the true power and forcefulness lives and breathes as her depiction resonates as strongly and deeply as the story itself.
This is the unique skeleton key of Dana H., and exactly the room we are placed inside of. It is an opportunity to listen to the actual recordings of that very difficult conversation, edited into a dramatic theatrical piece, that is the gift of this show. It is unlike anything we have experienced before, and there is a complicated wonderment in the dissociation that happens within our senses. The spliced delivery of recorded voices being perfectly lip-synced forces us to sit up and pay attention in a way that connects, although it also keeps us a bit at arm’s length. Working with Hnath’s wickedly wise sound designer, Mikhail Fiksel (PH’s The Treasurer), the two built an audio track that matched the horrifying story-telling ideal in order to drive home the complicated thesis that good and evil exists most wildly right outside our door. Maybe even inside that hotel room that glows in the back just behind her miraculously vanishing and reappearing chair. Part of the tension is wondering how that room will eventually be used, and in a way, the cleaning up that happens, and the peering out doesn’t do much to let us in. Or does it? It’s confusing and mind-altering, but maybe that’s trauma, dissociated and scrambled, that leaves a bloody stain inside for all to see.
As directed with the clarity of abstract vision by Les Waters (PH’s For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday) with perfect costumes designed by Janice Pytel (Steppenwolf’s Middletown), Dana H. is drenched by the hypnotizing examination of power and trauma, while being bruised in helplessness and horror. The play both draws us in with its truth, but also keeps us at arm’s length, dissociating sometimes like Dana did, from the dramatic purpose of being almost too pure and too caught up in making the intensity of the pain monolithic. The pay-off falls short, but doesn’t actually disappoint in the larger scheme of things. He’s taken a tight restrictive structure and added symbolic gestures of cleansing and layering of jumbled sound to emphasize the confusion of time and continued torture. It’s chaos made for only our senses to understand. O’Connell is as trapped as she is gifted by the taped recollections of painful trauma, giving her almost no leeway to grab hold of the material herself and run away with it.
In the parallel verbatim play, Is This A Room, conceived and directed by Tina Satter, Artistic Director of Half Straddle, leeway is given to the human pieces of the puzzle to use their own voice in the story-telling process. This play tells another true story, with the word-by-word script coming straight from the official, yet heavily redacted, transcript that was recorded on Saturday, June 3rd, 2017, when a 25-year-old Air Force intelligence specialist by the name of Reality Winner comes face to face with an FBI search warrant at her home in Augusta, Georgia. She has been targeted by these FBI men because she is suspected of leaking an official document to ‘The Intercept‘ website. This illegally leaked document just might help prove Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and its sharing, a spontaneous act of inner morality by Reality, we are told, would eventually bring about a five-year prison sentence for this woman.
Intricately portrayed by the incredible Emily Davis (Bushwick Starr’s Singlet), Reality is a complex structure (ain’t that the truth), one where we keep wondering about her thought process and her decision-making strategies, setting up a questionable stance of care for her in the face of the FBI men who sometimes stand uncomfortably close up in her face. The three are a complex and fascinating mixed bag of tricks, arriving to invade her home and her life. Agent Garrick, strongly played by Pete Simpson (Public’s Measure for Measure) tends to be the one we feel connected to the most at first, mainly because of his odd style of engagement, with Agent Taylor, captivatingly portrayed by Will Cobbs (ABC’s “For Life“) alongside a third officer, interestingly portrayed by Becca Blackwell (Showtime’s “Shameless“), parceling out various interpersonal dynamics and aggression that add layers of intrigue onto the matter at hand.
Awkwardness is at the base of this tense and life-changing interaction, as the FBI agents both try to intimidate and soothe in a never-ending game of bad cop/good cop hat swapping. They are thoughtful and caring, especially when it comes to the pet animals within, while simultaneously making Reality feel the weight and danger of what is happening, and what might be taken away from her at any moment. The pressure and intensity heat up as the 70-minute play ticks forward, dropping out the knowledge known by both with just enough space in between to feel the walls slowly but surely closing in. Glimpses of fear and regret play out across Davis’s turned-away face and body, making her Broadway debut a thoroughly career-shifting achievement while helping make the whole dynamic escalate beautifully in response to the fine work done by those three actor agents. Without that push and pull, this tense, tight glimpse into that complicated moment wouldn’t hold our attention as well as it does.
It’s a compelling unfolding, happening in real-time, that keeps us guessing almost more so than any of the four on stage. We are inside the unwrapping, just like we are with Hnath’s Dana H. but the difference lies in its delivery. These actors are given the space and time to add their own flavor to the words that are written out before them from the transcript, albeit with many details redacted out. This is generally emphasized in the strength of the sound design, courtesy of Lee Kinney (New Group/Vineyard’s “Daddy”) and Sanae Yamada, who also wrote the score. It punctures the air, much like it does when the titular phrase, a surreal non-sequitur, is spoken abstractly by the strange unknown agent played by Blackwell. It is referencing something that is lost in translation, stated without texture or even meaning, possibly because of the redacted nature of the whole piece, yet delivered without irony on that equally bare abstract stage, designed by Parker Lutz (Sarah Michelson’s Dogs), with subtle costumes designed by Enver Chakartash (Wooster’s A Pink Chair) and an electrifying lighting design by Thomas Dunn (St. Louis Rep’s The Little Dog Laughed).
The question, it seems, that is being put forward for debate lies somewhere in the realm of structure and presentation. Two accounts of real moments told in opposing styles, breathing tense energy into the trauma that changed the lives of these two women. That is what is at the core. The questions that exist revolve around action and outcome, in both stories, electrifying the construct. Are we to ask which framework works best? Or just revel in their compelling differences? There lies the question, and I’m definitely leaning towards the latter.
It’s the connection to the material, in the end, that matters the most. The middle ground between life and death decisions, metaphorically exists somewhere deep inside the horrific scenario that Dana H. found herself trapped in. Same with Reality, in a way, who made a split-second decision based on her version of right and wrong that lead to this complex predicament. Both were, in a way, acts of morality in their workplaces. One gave care to a troubled man who had tried to kill himself, and the other was an impulse to let the world know an important truth publically. Dana H.‘s resulted in a man literally throwing himself headfirst into her home in order to take possession over her life and limb using intimidation and a complex threat of forced imprisonment. This could be said of Is This A Room‘s Reality and her FBI situation, minus the headfirst window shattering. The concepts presented work their disturbing magic for the most part, but I couldn’t quite get out of my head either. I wondered to myself if O’Connor had actually been given a voice in the proceedings would the tale have engaged my heart as much as the real woman engaged my mind? Hnath was determined to give his mother a pure voice at this table, and even as O’Connor stares out the window with anxious fear, Dana H. stays at arm’s length, scaring us, but never throwing itself headfirst through a window in order to occupy our soul. The voices given in Is This A Room did help solve the arm’s length distancing dilemma, but the true-to-life situation for Reality also stays somewhere a little out of reach. Maybe we craved a more theatrical outcome, and what we got, in both cases, was the cold hard truth of the world, and how it operates. Redacted, or not, these two plays are captivating and worthy of your time and energy. They are daring and exciting in their creative construction on a level rarely found on Broadway, so find your way over to the Lyceum, and join the debate.
Announced live on stage: “due to overwhelming demand and the incredible support from audiences like you.” The two plays will no longer close on November 14 as previously announced, and instead will run through November 27. Both were originally scheduled for limited runs ending Jan. 16, 2022. Don’t miss your chance to see these two compelling shows. For more information and tickets, go to vineyardtheatre.org/vineyard-on-broadway
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