In The Surveillance Trilogy, now in a world premiere production at Theater 40, Leda Siskind looks at all the ways Big Brother has control over us. Each of her three short plays deals with an ubiquitous (but secret) government power which wreaks havoc with our personal lives.
”Until All of This Is Over” is set in 1953, at the height of the McCarthy Era when many people suspected of being a communist were put under surveillance by the FBI. One such suspect was A Man (Landon Beatty), the protagonist of the first play of the trilogy. A college teacher, he fears that his leftist past will doom his chances of earning tenure. His wife (Jocelyn Hall) tries to reassure him, pointing to his solid achievements as an academic. But with a secret agent parked in a car outside his house and a subpoena in hand from a Congressional committee investigating “subversive” campus activities, he is eaten up by fear and paranoia. He turns on his wife, rues the day he ever criticized capitalism, and ends up a blubbering, pitiful, self-loathing mess.
In “The Havana Syndrome,” the scene shifts to a room in the Hotel Nacional in Havana, Cuba, 2017, where a CIA doctor (Warren Davis) is interrogating a woman (Stacey Moseley), who worked in the American embassy there. As is well known, many of the embassy’s employees suffered internal injuries caused by a mysterious substance. The CIA investigated the mystery and failed to solve it, concluding lamely that a few high-pitched crickets had somehow got into the air ducts in the embassy. The woman, who is being grilled in an exit interview, angrily denounces that theory. She knows that she and her fellow-workers were poisoned, though she’s unsure whether the Cubans were the culprits or whether the blame lies with some kind of internal malfunction. The smarmy CIA doctor refuses to believe Americans could have done anything wrong at the embassy. He also insists that hysterical people like her were exaggerating their suffering–only to get his comeuppance in a surprise ending that once again is based on truth.
In “Are You Listening?” Siskind takes on Artificial Intelligence and the Internet, two technologies that have taken control of our lives in sometimes sinister ways (e.g., Facebook and Google feeding information on us to the NSA). Set in the present day living room of a small apartment in L.A., the play looks at a modern dysfunctional family. Jezz (Charlotte Evelyn Williams) is having a tough time coping with Shira, her teenaged, slightly autistic daughter (Sequoia Granger). A scriptwriter looking to make her first big Hollywood sale, Jezz must also deal with the intrusion of Angel into their lives. Angel is an artificial-intelligence unit that sits in the living room and takes on human qualities in the way it not only answers questions but spits out advice.
Jezz, an ex-model who has struggled with bulimia, has a thing about food. When Shira throws up after eating something Jezz forced on her, the latter, in full neurotic mode, concludes that Shira is pregnant (even though she knows damn well that the girl has never even had sex). Things become even more bizarre when Simon (Max Pescherine), Jezz’s ex-husband turns up with a second A.I. unit, this one with opposite political and social ideas. Siskind wrings a lot of comedy out of the two warring “angels,” who blithely argue with each other while the humans proceed to fall apart before our eyes.
The Surveillance Trilogy takes place on Jeff G. Rack’s large, subdued set and features seven skilled actors who breathe impressive life into Siskind’s socially conscious plays, making for a challenging and provocative night of theater.