‘Is This a Room’ on Broadway is an ‘astonishing’ new play that dramatizes a real FBI interrogation

The long-awaited reopening of Broadway has just welcomed one of its most unique offerings of the season with the debut of new drama “Is This a Room.” One of a duo of transcript plays to bow this fall, “Is This a Room” uses the verbatim transcript of the FBI interrogation of Reality Winner – an NSA employee incarcerated for leaking classified information about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election to the press – as the basis for this spartan and experimental play. “Is This a Room” opened at the Lyceum Theatre on Oct. 11.

Conceived and directed by Tina Satter, “Is This a Room” stars a quartet of actors who reenact the June 3, 2017 interrogation and arrest of Winner, played by Emily Davis in her Broadway debut. Pete Simpson and Will Cobbs play FBI agents, and Becca Blackwell rounds out the cast. “This Is a Room” has had two prior incarnations in 2019 at The Kitchen and the Vineyard Theatre. On Broadway, it plays in repertory with Tony-nominee Lucas Hnath’s forthcoming “Dana H.,” which is also adapted from interviews.

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In a rave review, Helen Shaw (Vulture) calls “Is This a Room” an “eerie, essential play.” Shaw has reviewed the piece in both of its earlier iterations and readily admits that she has “adored it everywhere” she’s seen it. She says its bigger Broadway venue makes the play feel “both more gorgeous and more severe” and praises in particular the “translucent” Davis and her “microscopically observed performance.”

Jesse Green (New York Times) echoes this praise in his Critic’s Pick review of the play, calling it “astonishing – and astonishingly emotional – theater.” Davis also earns acclaim from Green, who says she delivers a “heartbreaking performance.” On the design elements of the production, Green calls the lighting and sound “superb” and “two weapons in Satter’s arsenal of disorienting effects.” When Reality Winner at one point breaks down, Green says, “It’s hard not to cry with her.”

Similarly, Naveen Kumar (Variety) applauds this “pulse-prickling docudrama.” Like Shaw and Green, he emphasizes the “stunning and uncannily naturalistic star turn from Emily Davis,” who delivers a “kinetic and magnetizing debut.” He also highlights Satter’s work as director, writing that she “performs an impressive sleight of hand, coaxing suspense from a foregone conclusion like a rabbit from a hat.”

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When the Tony nominating committee convenes for the first time this season, members will need to discuss how to categorize “Is This a Room” since it shares a bill with “Dana H.” Many two-part plays have been performed in repertory in recent years, of course, including Best Play winner “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two” (2018), Best Revival winner “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and “Perestroika” (2018), Best Play nominee “Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two” (2015), and the earliest example, Best Play nominee “Sizwe Banzi Is Dead and The Island” (1975). These instances are all different though, because both parts of each production were written by the same playwright(s) and performed by the same cast. It seems likely, then, that “Is This a Room” will compete separately from “Dana H.” at the 2022 Tony Awards.

What seems a bit clearer is Davis’ strength as a contender in the Best Actress contest. The dazzling reviews for her performance could help her break through the impressive list of eligible performers, including Deirdre O’Connell (“Dana H.”), LaChanze (“Trouble in Mind”), Uzo Aduba (“Clyde’s”), Phylicia Rashad (“Skeleton Crew”), Sarah Jessica Parker (“Plaza Suite”), Debra Messing (“Birthday Candles”), this year’s champion Mary-Louise Parker (“How I Learned to Drive”), Ruth Negga (“Macbeth”), and others. “Room” closes on Jan. 15, 2022, which could allow some of these other actresses to steal Davis’ thunder, but the Tony nominators will likely not forget a performance that earned such effusive kudos.

For the technical skill with which she brought this bureaucratic document to life, Tina Satter could be remembered in Best Director, too. Like Davis, Satter faces heavyweights in the category, including Tony-winners Sam Mendes (“The Lehman Trilogy”), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (“Skeleton Crew”), Anna D. Shapiro (“The Minutes”), Sam Gold (“Macbeth”), perennial nominee Scott Ellis (“Take Me Out”), and others. No other director had quite the task that Satter had in adapting this four-person transcript to the stage, though, and the novelty of it and the aplomb with which she handled it might land her a coveted spot in the line-up.

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