As The Private Room begins, you could be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled upon a play by David Mamet. Two New York stockbrokers, Tommy and Laurence, verbally wrestle ahead of the arrival of an underling clerk. But the fundamental difference between Mamet and Mark Lee is that while the former explores the crisis in masculinity, the latter looks at the much more current crisis in Americanism and what it is to be an American.
The nervous brokers are waiting for Miss Dempsey, who knows about their dodgy dealings - they need to silence her. But Barbara's no shrinking violet, hailing from a tough area of Queen's and being a part-time soldier. She takes the men on at their own game and earns a promotion into the bargain.
The rest of the piece follows her posting to Guatanamo Bay as an interrogator. Her story runs parallel to that of Laurence, who attempts to lead a 'normal' life (picket fence et al) but fails dismally. Once Barbara's tour of duty is finished, she arranges a reunion with the two men , but they're dismayed to discover a distinct change in her.
Although never stated, it's clear that the two meetings that frame the piece are before and after 9/11 and we witness how the trio have dealt with life in the aftermath of the attack. Whereas before, the ethos was 'live for now' with contempt for the past, suddenly an enforced maturing means they all come to realise that actions have consequences.
Dempsey's epiphany comes while questioning Salman Bashir, a suspected terrorist. Though she starts by using him to unleash her disgust for men in general, as a dialogue opens up between the two, the anonymous face of terrorism suddenly exists as an individual, an intelligent young man, and her ability to toe the party line and 'just do her job' wanes.
Lee has written an intelligent piece of theatre which portrays a world that hasn't come on very far from McCarthy's America. The Private Room is subversive in that the Americans portrayed lead hollow materialistic existences whereas our 'terrorist' Salman has a clear belief system and moral code.
The production itself is rather proppy and some of the scene changes are over long - I'd also question director Debra Hauer's choice of music, which seemed to add nothing to the whole - but the performances are strong. Michael Hayden's Laurence is a step away from Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), while Janet Kidder has the balls and vulnerability necessary to convince as Barbara.
The Private Room is about what goes on behind closed doors, and in the current climate, this opportunity to be a fly on the wall is extremely thought-provoking, revealing and worrying.
- Hannah Kennedy