Three people are thrown in a holding cell to be questioned about acts of terrorism, suspected of bombings. The scenario already makes for good drama, as the detainees swear by "the cause" and eventually crack under pressure. Their personal relationships slowly unravel.
Some dramatists might think this is enough for a solid play about interpersonal politics. But Kevin Grammer goes one step farther. In his taut drama Empty Room, which opens Balanced Almond's 2009-'10 season at the Ochre House, he offers up more details than might be deemed necessary about the bombers (played by Laurel Whitsett, Mitchell Parrack and Brian Witkowitcz), their motivation and their deed. Turns out they're Americans who blow up empty buildings in protest of their country's post-9/11 actions. But despite their "efforts," the war keeps going.
This takes the play by Grammer (who also directs and plays the interrogator/doctor) into the realm of agitprop. And for that, bravo. The show's program even includes a quote from Noam Chomsky. After he was asked "How do you stop terrorism?," he replied, "Quit participating in it."
While there is much to be said for open-ended playwriting that leaves unanswered questions and attempts universal analysis, here's to artists bold enough to point fingers and ask tough questions of their own government. In doing just that, Empty Room also comments on the nature of protest, terrorism begetting terrorism, Cheney-era interrogation and living in a climate of fear—not to mention painting a portrait of the captives' loyalties, jealousies and willingness to self-destruct.
It's the tightest and finest piece of theater Balanced Almond has created to date.
When the lights come up, two of the detainees (Whitsett and Parrack) are blindfolded and in body sacks, which are hooked to a truss above them in—as the play's title suggests—an empty room. The Doctor (Grammer), perpetually cleansing his hands with sanitizer, eventually releases them from the bondage and brings in the third prisoner (Witkowitcz). One by one, the doc takes the suspects into another room, which is visible on two TV monitors on either side of the tiny stage. There, he places the hostage in a chair and conducts experiments. The audience can't hear the exchange, but the mere sight of the process is enough to induce seat-squirming.
The performances by the three prisoners are well-crafted, and Grammer the director nicely builds the tension and fear between them. As an actor, Grammer is the area's best portrayer of creepy mad-scientist types, and his presence alone is scarier than any torture device that might be waiting for the prisoners outside the empty room.
There is one minor quibble about the show, and it's something that happens at all of the Almond's productions. The shows are never long, usually about an hour, yet there's always an intermission. When the production involves the silly shenanigans of foul-mouthed puppets, it's no big. It gives theatergoers 15 more minutes to hang out in a hipster locale, and aids in creating the atmosphere of a theater experience. But in the drama Empty Room, the intermission happens just as tensions start thickening, and it messes with the overall flow.