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INTERROGATION ROOM at RLTP is as intense as it gets. Constrained set, only four actors, not easy to watch, but so worth it

THE BASICS: INTERROGATION ROOM, the 2019 revival of the 2003 award winning play by Jon Elston, directed by Scott Behrend, starring Matt Witten, John Vines, Nick Stevens, and Dave Tyrik runs through November 24, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 at Road Less Traveled Theater, 456 Main Street. $39 general admission, $25 students, $5 on Mighty Taco Student Thursdays (November 7, 14 and 21) purchase at door with valid ID. (629-3069) Complimentary valet parking across the street at the Hilton Garden Inn. Runtime: 2 hours with one intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: As the play opens, a black high school student named Mikey is in a police interrogation room and soon two detectives, Bremen (who is black) and Janetty (who is white) enter to question him about his sister who has been raped and brutally murdered. It turns out that Mikey is the adopted son of a well-to-do white family in a suburban neighborhood. The victim is white and Bremen and Janetty do everything they legally can to get Mikey, their only suspect, to confess. As the second act opens, we meet a “concerned citizen” who lives in the same suburban neighborhood, a rich, influential white man who seems just a little too interested in the case for comfort. It turns out that he and Detective Janetty have some history, and as the conversation (interrogation?) continues Bremen and Janetty find themselves questioning each other’s motives as class, racial, and ethnic prejudices threaten to derail the investigation.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: This is not an easy play to watch. Fortunately, Dyan Burlingame’s design calls for some high-tension cables strung left and right and up and down the spare gray set or it would have been tempting walk on stage during Act I to smack the two detectives as they are browbeating young Mikey. Detectives Bremen (John Vines) and Janetty (Nick Stevens) are using “The Reid Technique” (explained in the program handout) whose goal is to lead a suspect to believe that a confession (whether guilty or not) is in the person’s best interests. We’ve all seen variations of this on TV and in the movies, but there in the theater, live and in your face, it is extremely unsettling.

John Vines and Nick Stevens as Detectives Bremen and Janetty | Photo credit Gina Gandolfo 2019

Then, in Act II, it’s equally tempting to walk on stage and smack a different character, Peck (Matt Witten), the “concerned citizen” who reeks of white privilege. Act II is as difficult to watch as Act I, but for different reasons.

Be warned, this is a high-tension cat and mouse game and all four players are up to the challenge of the ebb and flow of energy in the interrogation room.

So, be warned, this is a high-tension cat and mouse game and all four players are up to the challenge of the ebb and flow of energy in the interrogation room. John Vines, last seen in RLTP’s production of BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY once again plays a character who on the outside seems easy going but inside the wheels are always turning. As the play goes on, Detective Bremen does garner a bit of sympathy from the audience. And so does the character of Detective Janetty played with bold energy and athletic grace by Nick Stevens. In Act I you can’t stand this prick. In Act II, after you learn some about his back story, you’re a little (just a little) more sympathetic.

Nick Stevens, Matt Witten, John Vines | Photo credit Gina Gandolfo 2019

And then there’s Matt Witten, who as Peck has his own sick cat and mouse game going. And we’re not talking cute Tom and Jerry cartoon chases. We’re talking about the first time you see your charming fluffy kitten toy with a half dead mouse before breaking its neck and dropping it on your pillow. Witten’s lines, and presentation, reminded me of Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in the movie “The Silence of the Lambs.” The opening of Act II, with Witten’s back to us, in the twilight interrogation room, bathed in a single overhead light, is one for the ages.

Bravo to director Scott Behrend and production team of RLTP Ensemble members Dyan Burlingame (set design), John Rickus (light design), Maura Price (costume design), and Katie Menke (sound design).

The playwright, Jon Elston, was co-founder of Road Less Traveled Productions, along with current Artistic Director Scott Behrend, and they first presented this play in 2003. Although in the program we read that Elston is grateful “for the opportunity to revisit and refresh the text for increased relevance and resonance in 2019” there were still a few somewhat jarring anachronisms, for example conjecture about someday a black man becoming President of the U.S. It seems that if you’re going to refresh, why not go all the way and remove all topical references?

Matt Witten as Peck and Nick Stevens as Janetty go head to head | Photo credit Gina Gandolfo 2019

On the other hand, the geographical references in the street names, makes it clear that we’re talking about the Smallwood Elementary School district. If you know that little section of the town of Amherst (which bills itself as “the safest town in America”) it adds an amusing element. If you don’t, there’s nothing lost.

As we say in the land of the four buffalos: “Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.”

UP NEXT: In January, THE ANTIPODES, by Pulitzer Prize-winning Annie Baker, set in the writer’s room of a television series, starring Sean Cullen, originally from South Buffalo, who has gone on to Broadway, movies, and television and is currently recurring as “FBI Director William Webster” in season two of “Mindhunter” on Netflix.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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