Suspense cultivates a showdown in ‘The Farm’
To be a spy, to quite literally live a lie, inevitably forces you into some morally murky territory.
In “The Farm,’’ Walt McGough’s taut and absorbing new play at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, a CIA agent named Finn is forced to confront the reality that he lost his moral compass - and quite possibly his sanity - in that murk.
“The Farm,’’ directed by David R. Gammons, signals that the 27-year-old McGough is well on his way to fulfilling the significant promise he’s shown for some time. A Brookline resident and a graduate of the MFA playwriting program at Boston University who works as an administrative assistant at SpeakEasy Stage Company, McGough won this year’s Capital Fringe Festival Audience Award in Washington, D.C., for best comedy for “Priscilla Dreams the Answer.’’
With its ambitious blend of John le Carré and Franz Kafka, “The Farm’’ is anything but comic. Gammons and his creative team, especially sound designer David Remedios and lighting designer Karen Perlow, conjure a brooding atmosphere, including several minutes at the beginning of the play that unfold in complete darkness.
Dale Place, so memorable as a supernatural postman in New Repertory Theatre’s production of Steve Yockey’s “afterlife: a ghost story,’’ delivers a mesmerizing performance in “The Farm’’ as another kind of spook.
After 24 years in the field, a time during which his marriage dissolved and he grew estranged from his son, this spy is looking to retire and finally come in from the cold. But there’s one big question that needs to be cleared up first: Why, exactly, did a young man named Khalil, whom Finn was training in Paris, end up dead?
Khalil, played by Nael Nacer (“The Aliens’’), prowls the stage or stands offstage, a shoeless wraith, his eyes never leaving Finn’s face. Sometimes he speaks, but only Finn can see and hear Khalil, and only he can see and hear another character (also played by Nacer) who figured prominently in Finn’s past.
Finn’s self-protective, near-feral instincts are evident from the moment he first enters the office of a coldly businesslike CIA analyst named Parker, who is played with compellingly intense focus and control by Lindsey McWhorter (Elizabeth in SpeakEasy’s “In the Next Room, or the vibrator play’’).
With his shirt collar unbuttoned, a couple of days’ growth of beard on his face, and a combative glare in his eyes, Finn seems to be both trapped and spoiling for a fight. But Parker, as trimly attired as Finn is disheveled, doesn’t give an inch.
“You are not unique. You are not special,’’ Parker tells Finn. “You are a tool that was mass-produced two decades ago to be a very specific way, and all of a sudden you decided you didn’t want to be a tool anymore, and you walked away from it, and that decision happened to come shortly after a mission that you pretty much have to agree went to [expletive] with no warning.’’
Parker’s office (given a suitably drab, bureaucratic anonymity by set designer Jon Savage) is in the Langley headquarters of the CIA. The year is 2004, one year after the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Finn is white; Parker is black. Finn is in his mid-50s and began his career when the Cold War was still going strong; Parker is in her 30s and launching her career in an intelligence-gathering climate defined by 9/11, the Iraq war, waterboarding, and Abu Ghraib. (On her office wall hang photos of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Mr. Slam-Dunk himself, CIA chief George Tenet).
Finn is bitter, burned out, and disillusioned. Place conveys the compelling sense of a man who is determined to keep the door closed on his past but knows down deep that it’s catching up to him, complete with misdeeds that were either perpetrated in the name of intelligence-gathering or were the result of collateral damage to his own psyche.
Parker, by contrast, is an up-and-comer determined to prove herself to her superiors after switching to the CIA from the Secret Service. The way to do it is to get Finn to spill the beans, and the protracted verbal fencing match that ensues between her and Finn seems to be a collision of opposites.
But in one of numerous resonant moments in this fine play, “The Farm’’ ends with a jolting final image that suggests they may not be as different as she thinks.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.