- Jonathan Kalb
You may have noticed that we’re living through an epistemic crisis—a disorienting mass anxiety over the status of facts and the verifiability of knowledge. Whatever reassurance any of us might draw these days from, say, the return of scientists and other experts to positions of clout, we’re all well aware that their stature is fragile and that the loutish Legions of Truthiness are massing just outside the gates. Walking out of Dana H. and Is This A Room last week—two extraordinary “verbatim plays” playing in repertory at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway—it occurred to me that this awful, looming disquiet is actually an ideal environment for documentary theater.
Documentary theater loosely means any play rooted in the technical recording of reality, be it interviews, videos, transcripts of trials and hearings, recordings of conversations, etc., which theatermakers shape into dramatic form and perform with live actors. It’s been around since the mid 20th century.
The commonest misconception about it is that its goals are primarily journalistic: revealing important new facts from the stage with the sexy help of name-brand actors. In fact, the best documentary plays are much slyer than that. Their special power is in the fascinating fractures they open up between what their recordings present as factual truth and the rich ambiguities of their stage presentations, which invariably evoke the myriad ways facts are skewed, fudged, spun, varnished, exaggerated, misconstrued, what have you. This is just the sort of fracture we’re all hypersensitized to at the moment.
Dana H. (which, like its companion piece, was a downtown hit at the Vineyard Theater before the pandemic) has been shaped as a play by the well-known dramatist Lucas Hnath, who is listed as its author in the program, and directed by Les Waters. Every word in it, however, originally came from an interview that the director Steve Cosson, Hnath’s frequent collaborator, conducted with Hnath’s mother Dana Higginbotham. Cosson questioned her about a harrowing experience she had while Hnath was in college of being kidnapped, psychologically and sexually abused, and held hostage for months by an obsessed, suicidal, ex-con white suprematist. Onstage we see the formidable actor Deirdre O’Connell impersonating Higginbottom in a seedy Florida motel-room designed by Andrew Boyce, but the voices we hear are entirely Cosson’s and Higginbotham’s, played on loudspeakers. O’Connell lip-synchs the text—bits of interview Hnath has stitched together—and channels Higginbotham’s traumatic experiences by filling them out with astonishingly compelling gestural and facial language.
The result is a tour de force of a very peculiar kind. The story itself is riveting and sensational, raising timely and disturbing questions about female powerlessness, repressed PTSD, the weirdness of Florida, law enforcement complicity with the Aryan Brotherhood, and much, much more. It would certainly make for a great “60 Minutes” episode. But that’s not its emotional center. The heart of the piece is both in the fractures it pries open between reported and interpreted realities, life and performance, experience and memory, and also in the spectral nature of acting itself, where a human being represents an invisible other always hovering over the experience like a ghost. All this together lends the play’s urgent questions a stimulating air of openness and awareness of the slipperiness of truth.
Why, one can’t help but ask, for instance, couldn’t Higginbotham ever tell this story directly to her son? Instead of posing that question directly, Dana H. lets it hang as a tacit mystery tucked into the unremarked, occasional presence of Cosson’s voice. It’s a much stronger choice than pressing the point directly. For one thing, it’s a light rather than heavy touch, always better where teaching in drama is concerned. For another, it introduces the interrogative shadow of therapy, inviting us to explore multiple contradictory truths the way therapy patients do, and actors, and frustrated children, instead of imposing any single one on us.
The decision to have O’Connell act only physically but not vocally is a comparably brilliant stroke. Hearing Higginbotham’s words seem to emerge from O’Connell’s mouth is richer and more evocative than hearing her actually speak them. It recalls the disembodied experience of trauma more than full impersonation would, keeping us conscious the whole time of the reluctance trauma victims often have to report what happened to them, or even admit it to themselves. But more than that, it’s the eeriness of the experience that sticks with you: watching O’Connell’s lips move while hearing another’s voice, we imagine Higginbotham as a dematerialized presence—a specter—whose trauma is witnessed by O’Connell like Marley’s ghost. This show, I suspect, would be more likely to build empathy (as opposed to mere pity) than a raft of “60 Minutes” episodes.
Is This A Room is a parallel marvel. Created in 2019 by Tina Satter with her company Half Straddle, it riffs on another recorded source with remarkable theatrical inventiveness. This material is the heavily redacted transcript of the FBI’s interrogation of Reality Winner on the day she was arrested for leaking confidential government documents about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The subject of the filched documents is in fact never mentioned, and that's the first of the piece's fascinating fractures. A slide tells us the transcript came from a FOIA request, so we assume that the many buzzes and pink light flashes that keep interrupting the action indicate censored passages. That in turn continually reminds us of the U.S. government's clumsy attempts to hide the plainly political nature of the Winner's prosecution, which ended in the longest sentence ever imposed under the perennially contested Espionage Act (62 months). And yet that's just the piece's surface.
Unlike in Dana H., the actors in Is This A Room fully enact their story. Emily Davis plays 25-year-old Winner, an ex-Air Force linguist fluent in Dari and Pashto working as an intelligence contractor, and she’s joined by a trio of FBI agents played by Pete Simpson, Will Cobbs and Becca Blackwell. Winner is petite and affable, dressed in a plain white shirt and cutoff shorts, and the men, all armed, one in Kevlar, approach her like any bad-ass malefactor, dodging and blustering, cajoling and looming, even flirting as if following a script. They do everything you expect except recognize the obviously unthreatening nature of the woman in front of them (notwithstanding the multiple firearms she tells them she owns). Only near the end do they let on they’re fully aware she’s just a rookie who got snagged on the loose nail of her conscience.
Satter turns the halting and disjointed verbal encounter into a fascinatingly awkward dance. On a simple array of plain grey platforms, the actors lunge, feint, circle and stalk one another, shifting positions for what sometimes seem like purely emotional or arbitrary reasons. The cops invade Winner’s personal space much more severely than realism justifies. Then, about two thirds through, the polarity reverses and Winner is suddenly in their faces. The moment corresponds to the point when she realizes she’s trapped and fumbles to explain the moral principle behind her crime to the cops. Is her turnabout a fantasy? A wish? It doesn’t matter, for the beauty of theater is to give imaginative agency to the powerless.
Anyone who’s been on the fence about seeing these plays during their final weeks at the Lyceum should get off it.
Photos: Chad Batka
by Lucas Hnath, directed by Les Waters
conceived and directed by Tina Satter
149 W. 45th St.