Where: Route 66 Theatre Company at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave.
When: through April 2
Tickets available at: route66theatre.brownpapertickets.com
By ANNE SPISELMAN
The subject of Gabriel McKinley’s “The Source” could have been ripped from today’s headlines. The title character is someone who is leaking explosive documents exposing a government agency or agencies for spying on people , illegally gaining information by hacking into their smart phones, computers, televisions, and other electronic devices. Given the latest WikiLeaks-CIA scandal, what not too long ago was the stuff of science fiction has become reality.
We don’t see that Source in this Route 66 world premiere, however. Instead, McKinley focuses on two journalists who’ve dropped everything and traveled halfway around the world to an unnamed city to meet with him (or her) in the hopes of getting the story of a lifetime. Holed up under fake names as a married couple in a well-appointed room in an unnamed hotel, they wait—getting to know each other but also becoming increasingly desperate and paranoid as the days pass.
Vernon and Oona are polar opposites, and canny director Jason Gerace has cast Cody Proctor and Kristina Valada-Viars extremely well in these juicy roles. He’s a neat, nervous, tightly wound print journalist who’s so hyper-cautious from the start that he’s changed rooms several times, unplugs the phone and television as soon as he arrives, and tosses his cell phone in the mini bar freezer so it can’t be tracked. She’s a freewheeling, technology-adverse filmmaker who’s just come from a war zone, cares more about people than facts (unlike him), and is less inclined to be suspicious, at least initially. She accurately calls him a “boy scout”; he objects when she lights a cigarette.
They’re like fingernails on a chalkboard and can’t figure out why the Source has decided to pair them. All they know is that he intends to meet with them and wants Oona to film the encounter. She’s received two letters from him and a pile of documents by snail mail because she doesn’t use a computer. Vernon has only gotten a small sample of the documents and is jealous that Oona has more. We only get hints of what this material contains.
When the Source fails to show up for the scheduled meeting, the play becomes more of a psychological thriller. Feeling like prisoners in the hotel, Vernon and Oona worry about what might have happened to him (arrest, imprisonment, murder?), and realizing they don’t have any connections to the outside world, begin to dread what could be in store for them. They seesaw between emotions, almost sleeping together out of boredom one minute, accusing each other of lying and possible betrayal the next. Periodic loud knocks on the door heighten the tension, especially since no one is there when they answer. Instead, they’re left enigmatic clues like a Rubik’s cube.
The play builds to an ending that’s neither surprising nor very believable. Along the way, there’s also a fair amount of discussion about privacy versus security, with Vernon and Oona seemingly shifting their positions depending on how they feel at the moment. I also found myself questioning their common sense, if not their ethics, as journalists. For example, Vernon says he didn’t tell his editor where he was going because he didn’t want to share the story with another writer who might be sent with him, but since he knew he was going into a dangerous situation, it was implausibly foolhardy of him not to inform anyone. On top of this, one would think they would have vetted the Source completely before trusting his word or traveling such a long distance to meet him. If they had, some of the qualms they have in the hotel room would have surfaced earlier.
Putting aside reservations about the script, Proctor and Valada-Viars give terrific, totally convincing performances in a very intimate setting. Though the characters they play are not especially likable, we end up sympathizing with them and even sharing their anxiety.
Jack Magaw’s scenic design and Claire Chrzan’s lighting add to the drama, as does Christopher Kriz’s original music and sound design. The set does miss one bet, however: The hotel room doesn’t have a closet. If it did, Vernon would hang his clothing in it (he does lay out an outfit neatly on the bed), while Oona would be more likely to throw her things on the floor (apropos costumes by Rachel Sypniewski). Instead, they both toss stuff around.