By Gabriel McKinley.
Directed by Jason Gerace.
Produced by Route 66 Theatre Company.
Playing at The Den Theatre, Chicago.
OONA: Did you find something extraordinary and new?
VERNON: Just two people.
One Source—Two Journalists—Seven Days—Quantifiable Boredom.
Gabriel McKinley’s new play The Source begins with a timely and intriguing premise: an anonymous source leaks to journalists highly classified documents regarding U.S. national surveillance operations, procedures and military capabilities; the source then has the two strangers meet in a hotel room to await a personal interview with him. The premise is interesting and rife with possibilities, particularly since it takes on the journalists’ perspective rather than that of the source, focusing on journalistic ethics and the issues journalists face when confronted with a story of overwhelming implications for the journalists and for society at large: issues such as the journalist’s role and personal motives, the legitimacy of surveillance and national security, the protection of individual liberties and privacy, the importance of a source’s identity, and the risk to all human lives involved.
Unfortunately, the intriguing premise of McKinley’s play never matures into the “thrilling psychological drama” it wants to be. The questions raised are not new, and neither are the talking points McKinley puts in the mouths of his characters; and very quickly the play becomes mired in a conflict of ethical ideas and the irksome personalities of his journalists. The life and death stakes of the situation become lost in the cerebral volley of ideas (with a couple heart-to-hearts thrown in for humanity’s sake), neither the source nor the CIA/NSA ever show up, and the audience is left to its own imagination to supply for itself the “dread” of what these journalists are feeling—because despite how much they mention it, we never get to feel it with them. In other words, The Source is all smoke and no fire—all talk (some humor), no action—all premise and no story. In short, it’s boring.
From the moment Vernon (Cody Proctor) enters the hotel room, to neurotically unplug all electronic devices and put his cellphone in the mini-fridge, it is clear he is nervous, scared, and a bit paranoid. Oona (Kristina Valada-Viars), however, comes across as nonchalant, calm, and almost flippant in contrast. It doesn’t take long for an antagonism to build between them—on matters ranging from sexism to journalistic integrity—and then the dialogue flies with wit and vitriol.
As days pass, though, they get to know each other, lower each others’ defensive walls with probing questions in moments that smack of the sentimental poignancy of film close-ups. These moments are punctuated with the loud knocks of an unknown visitor at their hotel door. No one’s there. Is “the source” coming? Has he been caught—worse, killed? Is the NSA/CIA listening in on their conversations? What are they waiting for? The tension builds (for them), and they both admit to feeling an unspecified “dread” and confess to each other their own secret motives for pursuing journalism. Finally, after seven days . . . the play ends.
The principle problem with McKinley’s story is that his story is not a story: it’s a situation. The real story—that is, the drama—never manifests because nothing happens: no one actually acts. They wait and talk and debate and talk and fret but never do anything of consequence. What conflict there is—and a middling conflict at that—is entirely between the two journalists, their rather irritating personalities, and their ethical ideas. That’s the “story”—and it’s boring.
Judging from Route 66’s well-staged production, I surmise McKinley intended The Source to zero-in on the psychological drama of individuals faced with a medley of ethical dilemmas in a potential/real life and death situation. While he succeeds in painting the colorful psychology of his characters, he does not do so through dramatic action but by means of tedious and unnecessary exposition. Therefore, his focus on the “human element,” so to speak, is overwrought because I can only care so much about people who only talk about acts they never commit to (except waiting, of course), and, frankly, his characters are not that deep and interesting.
Regarding the ethical issues inherent in the situation, McKinley falls prey to the same expository tendency: rather than dramatize these issues in consequential actions, he merely has his characters verbalize and discuss them. Acknowledging that these are important issues, nevertheless, for the sake of drama, dare I ask—who cares? What’s even worse, nothing they say is at all new to anyone familiar with the talking points currently in vogue on the issues. Career journalists with nothing but pedestrian ideas—there’s your outrage! “Liberty” is invoked and never defined; “national security” vis-à-vie “personal privacy” is debated without any hearty nuance or deeper insight; and, more relevant to the “story,” the shocking contents of the leaked documents are never specified—and are finally dismissed by Vernon as nothing categorically new. Again, who cares, then?
Both of these matters could be overlooked, I think, would there have been some compelling, visceral reality to the risk the journalists were in, having knowledge of the documents. But this, too, never materializes dramatically. Loud knocks on the door surprise us for a moment, but then no one’s there and we don’t care again. The characters verbalize their mutual feelings of “dread,” but—dread of who or what? I don’t know and, worse, I don’t feel it and so—don’t care. Perhaps there are people out there that walk around with a heavy dread at the thought of being in such a situation as this, and for them no dramatization is necessary: they simple are paranoid (I think of people I’ve met at bus stops). Yet, such coherently, ethically minded, thoughtful people of hypothetical foresight are foreign to me. I expect art to incite such a consciousness in me through the sympathetic force of drama: take me on this journey so I can feel what it would be like to be in such a situation and make such decisions. Alas, not in The Source. Neither “the source” with his sweaty palms, nor the CIA/NSA with their surly faces, shiny guns and water-boards ever show up, and so they are just as distant and unreal to me as before. As far as I feel, I’m still free.
One could praise highly the impeccable scenic design (Jack Magaw) that recreates a hotel room with such authenticity that I felt myself like sleeping on its queen bed; or one could comment on the interesting, dissonant, ambient music (Christopher Kriz) that casts a technological mood over the scene changes with the accompanying projection design (Mark Comiskey); or one could laud the actors for their well-done performances (regrettably contrived under the circumstance of having only pedestrian impetuses for their love and dread). But without a captivating, dramatic story with actions and consequences it all amounts to 85 minutes of tiresome talk in a habitable space as seven days go by, projected on the wall one day at a time with all the gravity an all-caps caption can convey.
Route 66’s production of The Source does, I believe, the most with McKinley’s
“story” as his script allows. Unfortunately, it’s a script that’s in need of dramatic revision. Those who expect at least the bare minimum of entertainment from even the most cerebral of plays will find this production only entertaining in parts. Those interested in getting the run-down of all talking points currently in vogue on national security issues and journalistic ethics will find themselves highly informed. Those looking for a “date night” play—look on. And those desiring some truth of art—search out a different source.
Reviewed on 9 March 2017.
Playing at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $25 Thursdays/Fridays and $30 Saturdays/Sundays, with $20 student tickets available. For tickets and information, visit Route66Theatre.BrownPaperTickets.com. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through April 2nd. Running time is 85 minutes with no intermission.