*SPOILERS, if you care about such things*
There is a concept of terrifying beauty at the center of Asymmetric, an idea that encapsulates decades of American foreign policy with chilling accuracy.
This idea doesn’t emerge until about midway through the show, so it helps that this svelte, deeply political espionage drama from playwright Mac Rogers clicks along so doggone fast. Produced by Gideon Productions in conjunction with Ground Up Productions at 59E59, Asymmetric brings a new sensibility to the already diverse Gideon genre catalogue. It’s a welcome addition.
As a lifelong scifi guy, I have always appreciated Rogers and Gideon’s careful use of that genre. In Rogers’ Honeycomb Trilogy plays and Frankenstein Upstairs, the big spectacle events have been kept smartly offstage, allowing the action of the plays to ruminate instead on the huge ideas, Rod Serling style. That Asymmetric is more in the vein of Showtime’s Homeland than Serling’s The Twilight Zone cannot be denied, but make no mistake: by purely technical definition, Asymmetric still counts as science fiction. You see, its a story that revolves around a piece of speculative technology that – as far as I am aware – thankfully does not yet exist.
The tech in question is a prototypical CIA aerial drone called “Icarus,” which utilizes DNA targeting to track its targets and then inject them with a lethal dose of poison. Its mission accomplished and its target dead, two canisters inside the drone break, releasing a cocktail of chemicals that dissolve the drone to the point that it is unrecognizable and, more importantly, untraceable. We learn quickly in Asymmetric that the blueprints for Icarus have been leaked by a mole within the CIA to parties hostile to the US. The unseen Icarus drone casts an effective shadow over the events of the play and don’t worry; Rogers is a for real playwright who knows the deal with Chekov. He knows that you can’t just hang a DNA-targeted CIA drone over the proverbial mantle in act one and then not fire it before the end.
The drone and the leak originate from a subset of the CIA referred to in the play as the “Fifth Floor,” where the rubber meets the road in terms of surveillance and wet works. The branch was founded by Josh Ruskin (Sean Williams), a Clinton era spymaster who has come on hard times. In the wake of his divorce Ruskin’s depression and drinking led to his being excused from the Agency in disgrace. Now he has been dragged to an offsite Fifth Floor facility at 2am by Zach (Seth Shelden), one of his old subordinates who is currently running the show. Zach and his unhinged interrogator, Ford (Rob Maitner), are having no luck getting information about Icarus from the mole; they are hoping that the once legendary Josh Ruskin can work his magic in the precious few hours they have before the top secret blueprints show up on the black market. They are inclined to think Ruskin can do this because the mole is a notoriously thorough and lethal spy named Sunny Black (Kate Middleton), who also happens to be his ex-wife.
His pajamas swapped for a clean suit and his hangover nursed with a cup of coffee, Ruskin gets some background on the Icarus drone and then begins his interrogation of Sunny in earnest with a simple question: “Why did you leave me?”
And then we’re off. With all the cards seemingly on the table, this twisty play flits through the remainder of its brisk 80 minute runtime like a shark. Rogers’ script is built for speed and bite, leaning heavily upon repetition, rapid fire question and answer volleys, and unexpected shifts in allegiance. Call me a freak, but to me there’s really nothing better than watching a tightly scripted play capably performed at a speed where you initially feel a half-second behind what’s going on. It’s such an incredible sensation to feel it in the audience when everyone gradually catches up to the action. It’s my absolute favorite part of live theater, that moment, five to ten minutes into a play, when a strong playwright like Rogers has fed an audience just enough information and they collectively think “Ah, I see,” and then finally know what the fuck is going on.
Even though I have followed Rogers’ work for years, I am impressed with his discretion here as to what an audience can be told through exposition as opposed to what we need to be shown. We can swallow the idea of a new-fangled death drone, for instance, with just some buzzy dialogue, but to fully appreciate the grim reputations of an enhanced interrogation techniques guy like Ford or a CIA assassin like Sunny, Rogers understands that it cannot just be talked about – we need to see them in action to feel the stakes. That’s why literally the first thing we see Ford do is cut off Sunny’s finger; we need to know this guy isn’t messing around. The same goes for Sunny’s burst of kung-fu a bit later, we need to understand that she is dangerous. Along with everything else in this sound production, Director Jordana Williams stages these crucial bits of grotesque action with restrained precision. Aided by a subtle transition in scenic and lighting designer Travis McHale’s slick but sparse design, Williams also lands the staging of the tricky climactic scene, which globetrots two of the characters to Reykjavik, Iceland.
Over the course of the Ruskin’s interrogation of Sunny we get a cross section of their relationship – he was the head of the “Fifth Floor,” she was their star agent who took his philosophy for spying to new levels. Earlier this week I posted a long piece on the types of relationships in past Gideon shows and this company never repeats itself. It is interesting to see how they play with a new dynamic – not just co-workers but mentor/mentee. In warfare, the term “asymmetric” is used to denote a discrepancy in the military power of the combatants. Basically a lopsided conflict; it’s the sort of thing that leads to the development of drones like Icarus.
Being a former mentor and mentee, Josh and Sunny’s relationship is not evenly weighted either, however there is no DNA-targeted armament in this case that can so neatly even the odds. In their working life he was her superior and now he might just be her only hope of avoiding treason charges. In their married life, Josh was wracked with depression and feelings of inadequacy – she eventually left because she thought he was a lost cause. Mr. Williams and Ms. Middleton thoroughly explore all the pressure points in the see-sawing status of their fractured relationship, which through some hurtful attacks and harsh words still registers a considerable degree of affection. As the mystery plays out and Ruskin discovers Sunny’s motivations for stealing the drone blueprints, I was always surprised at the points at which Mr. Williams registered heartbreak. Not at her finger being severed, but at the idea of her selling the blueprints for money. Not when he finds out that she has fallen in love with someone else, but when he finds out that she doesn’t think it’s right to kill anymore. That last one really floored me – Ms. Middleton plays this clearly painful moment of transition and confrontation beautifully. It’s not just that Sunny has personally lost the will to kill that horrifies the seasoned spook Ruskin, it’s that she doesn’t want anybody to kill anybody anymore. “That’s insane!” he says. “What you’re talking about is an entirely different world!”
“Then I’m talking about an entirely different world,” she says.
It’s amazing to me that with so much on the line Ruskin would be most flabbergasted by the thought that Sunny’s politics might have changed. In my lead in piece for Asymmetric I bet that Ruskin and Sunny’s relationship would be the focus of the show and it certainly is, but where the show really gets interesting is the broader discussion of American foreign policy they find themselves caught in the middle of. Rogers dabbled in international relations in his earlier play, Universal Robots, which recast a lot of twentieth century history, but this play has a lot to say about foreign policy right now. Essentially the only set decorations are 8 x 10 framed photos of President Obama and CIA director John Brennan, who loom over the events of the show like the portrait of the dad in The Glass goddamn Menagerie.
Where Ruskin harkens back to the ideologies of the Clinton administration, the characters of Zach and Ford represent the post 9-11 state of affairs. It turns out Zach’s pet project, the Icarus drone, has been designed to take out not just military but key civilian targets – a point that angers Ruskin, because he prefers “an operational methodology that isn’t indistinguishable from the Corleones.” Zach says that drones allow America to do war better. Ford says that all the real patriots had to adapt after 9-11, and that’s why Ruskin crashed and burned.
My only real criticism of the show would be that Zach and Ford are both essentially mouth pieces for grim political ideologies and nothing more. Shelden and Maitner both handle the material fantastically but as far as these two guys becoming real actualized characters like Ruskin and Sunny, I don’t know that it ever happened for me — nor do I know if that sort of depth is needed for two characters like this. Regardless, Maitner in particular is a truly inspired choice to play Ford and seems to revel in the character’s borderline sadism. When Ruskin points to the photo of Obama on the wall and says that he was supposed to be different with regards to his use of drones, the calloused Ford responds with a terrific monologue:
Do you know what domestic policy is? It’s a guy hiding out from his family in the garage all weekend, jerking off to his hobbies. Expand the market, restrict the market, expand abortion, restrict abortion — Sunday afternoon twattery. But then on Monday he has to put on a shirt with actual buttons on it and go to work because that’s foreign policy, and that’s what Daddies do.”
Which brings me back to the central idea I mentioned before. Throughout the play, Rogers makes sure to underline one of Ruskin’s axioms on intelligence gathering with constant repetition: “A book for every watch.” In Ruskin’s philosophy, every time an agent is staked out on a surveillance mission they should open a book on the person their watching. They should become a student of their target – learn his habits, his schedule, and his life. Only then can the agent carefully choose their moment. “Meticulous always wins,” Ruskin reiterates. Sunny, as Ruskin’s best student, took the “book for every watch” idea literally. After each mission, she methodically transcribed her “book” into an actual little notebook.
At about the midway point we learn that Zach has had all of Sunny’s write-ups hard-coded into Icarus’s programming as a kind of database. Icarus isn’t merely “fired” at its target; following Sunny’s methodology, it patiently tracks its target and then choses it’s moment. It will use Sunny’s years of experience as the Fifth Floor’s star wet works agent to become a more efficient killer. Sunny did not sell the Irarus blueprints for money – she sold them because she wants out of the killing game. That goes DOUBLE for the digitized version of her driving Icarus.
That a Clinton-era spy is literally transformed into an Obama-era drone is a pretty damn powerful metaphor for what’s being going on with America for the last twenty years. Because really Sunny is America, right? She was us when we thought we could save the world, and then she was us when we thought we had to police the world, and now she is us when we deal out death and can’t even be bothered to go. I am not a deeply political guy and I am straight up stupid about foreign policy, but I tend to think that if you lower the cost of going to war – if you remove the threat of losing American lives and treasure – then you make that decision easier to make. Maybe using drones makes us better at waging war, as Zach says, but it also maybe makes the decision about going to war a little too easy.
Transformation is a big theme in scifi and a big theme for Rogers and Gideon. Basically every other show I’ve seen of theirs includes some kind of physical or deeply emotional metamorphosis. Asymmetric certainly ranks up there with all those other Gideon shows; it is tightly written, perfectly performed and staged, and incredibly entertaining.
And yet the haunting idea of Sunny’s transformation totally took my breath away and shapes this play into something else, like a dispatch from an entirely different world.
Asymmetric is playing at 59E59 through December 6. The show seems to be selling out, but you can look into getting tickets here.