‘Intelligence’ Review: A Diplomatic Mission That’s All Improv, No Comedy | Modern Society of USA

‘Intelligence’ Review: A Diplomatic Mission That’s All Improv, No Comedy

‘Intelligence’ Review: A Diplomatic Mission That’s All Improv, No Comedy

How do you solve a problem like liaising with the head of a violent splinter group in a volatile region that might soon fracture into genocidal conflict? Try acting. In Helen Banner’s gripping, rickety “Intelligence,” directed by Jess Chayes at Next Door at NYTW, three women have gathered in a State Department conference room, tasked with creating a manual called “Guidelines for the Resolution of Conflict in Intractable Global Situations.” They’ll create these guidelines through role-playing.

The leader of this very small and very serious improv team is Sarah MacIntyre (Rachel Pickup), a superstar diplomat with a thing for sleeveless blouses. Joining her are two Foreign Service underlings, the fawning Lee (Kaliswa Brewster) and the skeptical Paige (Amelia Pedlow). Together they have 10 working days to prepare a document that tells “everyone else how to encounter the world even when it’s gone bad.” Sarah wants to kick things off by simulating her last successful negotiation.

Is that a reasonable premise? Not especially, and in an era of State Department cuts and executive branch bad faith, it risks suggesting that diplomacy is just one more empty exercise. On the other hand, role-playing and simulation is an accepted part of diplomatic training and the first rule of improv is to say yes to a situation no matter how outlandish, so maybe just go with it.

What you’ll get is a play that might not make much sense, but can still thrill. Ms. Chayes and her designers use the few features of the room — the chairs, the door, the world clock — to create an almost unbearable tension. Even when the stakes should feel low (this is just a role-play, right?), most moments seem balanced on the edge of a very sharp knife. Footsteps in the corridor or a knock at the door can make the breath catch in your throat — even before you learn that Diplomatic Security has taken an interest in the proceedings or that Sarah’s last negotiation may not have been a triumph.

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