Saturday, January 19, 2019

148 (2018-2019): Review: INTELLIGENCE (seen January 17, 2019)

“The Situation Room”

There’s a lot of intelligent writing in Helen Banner’s Intelligence, a new three-hander being given a sharp production at Next Door@NYTW under Jess Chaye’s astute, briskly-paced direction. While even the most serious plays usually have comedic moments, Intelligence, produced by Lucy Jackson in association with Dutch Kills Theater, is pretty much all business as it takes us into a basement conference room at the State Department, where three smart, attractive, ambitious, and determined women are gathered. Their mission: to prepare a step by step workbook called “Guidelines for the Resolution of Conflict in Intractable Global Situations.” 
Amelia Pedlow, Rachel Pickup, Kaliswa Brewster. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Leading the 30-something members of the team—Paige Smith (Amelia Pedlow, The Metromaniacs), somewhat doubtful about the job, and Lee Culvert (Kaliswa Brewster), eager to please—is the somewhat older, self-confident Sarah MacIntyre (Rachel Pickup). Sarah considers herself “a force of nature,” takes pride in the impression she makes when she walks into a room, and expects deference from lesser beings. Over the course of the play’s intermissionless 100 minutes, Sarah, a hotshot in the Foreign Service’s intelligence community, serves as her team’s mentor, instructing them in the art of conflict resolution with scary people in powerful positions.
Amelia Pedlow, Kaliswa Brewster. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Sarah teaches via role-playing in sessions predicated mainly on her own experience of six months earlier dealing with the murderous rebel leader of a Middle Eastern splinter group in some unnamed war-torn city. Her efforts appear to have paid off, even leading to the promise of a major award. As she snaps her fingers, the scenes, in which she sometimes participates, recreate her encounters with the fighter, whose violence—especially toward women—she seeks to mitigate. But the bargain she strikes will have tragic consequences. 

Meanwhile, with the women being confined for long days in the same room, the stress begins to take its toll. Often, in fact, it’s not easy to discern when their back and forth—carried out in bursts of staccato dialogue, with Sarah always one step ahead of her mentees—is role-playing and when it’s not. There’s even the feeling that role-playing is part of their natural interaction with one another. A drawback is the layer of implausibility that covers the exactitude of Lee and Paige’s recreation of Sarah’s encounters.
Kaliswa Brewster, Rachel Pickup, Amelia Pedlow. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The idea is intriguing and the actors express it with commitment, although sometimes being a bit overheated for so intimate a venue. However, the premise, which emphasizes the need for diplomatic solutions over military ones, also finds room for feminist commentary on attitudes toward women in our culture.

Unfortunately, the play’s critical swipes at both the Foreign Service’s inhumanity and the current administration’s diplomatic cutbacks are dissipated by its lack of specificity regarding the background situation to which it alludes. We hear words like ceasefire, dictators, tribes, and rebel forces, but the circumstances remain generalized, almost abstract, straining our continuing interest. Not a single Islamic reference is made. Banner’s dialogue, couched in a semblance of Foreign Service-speak, is delivered at an intense clip that, along with the shifting interactions of the participants, creates an ambiguity that blurs the drama and weakens our involvement.

It also becomes increasingly difficult to buy the idea that the team can come up with an extensive “guidelines” document based on 10 days of role-playing the same situation over and over with multiple variations. It’s not long before the exercises begin to look more like Sarah’s attempt to exorcize her guilt over the outcome of her negotiations. Nonetheless, there are several moments of suspense, as when we learn of Diplomatic Security’s suspicions regarding Sarah, followed by a consequent knocking on the door.
Amelia Pedlow, Rachel Pickup, Kaliswa Brewster. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Time being of the essence, Caroline Mraz’s realistic set of a long table and eight, wheeled, leather chairs, is dominated by a horizontal, digital clock with red characters on a black background clicking the time away in five different zones, along with the day of the week. The pressure is greatly enhanced by Sinan Refik Zafar’s excitingly percussive sound design. Jeannette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting goes from naturalistic fluorescent to atmospherically moody. And Sophia Choi makes the players look fashionably well put-together.

Each actress brings conviction, strength, and, of course, intelligence to her role, although we get to know next to nothing about their characters other than their professional aspirations, not least of which are the places to which they’d like to be posted. Pickup has the right swagger, Brewster the right determination, and Pedlow the right uncertainty. At one point, she delivers a series of ear-shattering, virtuosic screams that make you fear for her vocal cords.
Rachel Pickup, Amelia Pedlow. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Intelligence has its virtues but these are weighed down by, among other things, a vague backstory, implausible scenes, an anticlimactic structure that peters out too early, and a script that would work better with ten minutes lopped off.


Next Door@NYTW
83 E. 4th St., NYC
Through February 3