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You will not enjoy your time in Closet Land, an 80-minute journey into psychological torture and determined resistance, but then again, your enjoyment is hardly the point: Theatricals like Radha Bharadwaj’s aren’t entertainments but sociopolitical thought experiments, performative inquiries, and creative-class attempts to grapple with the experience of the unacceptable. That they frequently prove unpalatable in and of themselves is one of the territorial risks.
Closet Land locks a children’s-book writer (Sarah Barker) who may be a rabble-rouser in a room with an interrogator (David Lamont Wilson) who may be the reluctant agent of a totalitarian state or a sadistic loner intent on excavating a long-buried secret for his own, more personal purposes. The woman’s unpublished novel, whose title matches the play’s, may be a coded call to political resistance; the inquisitor’s interest in what inspired that novel, with its sweet-sad story of a little girl escaping into bright fantasy while locked away in her mother’s closet, may be more than institutional. Like the unpleasantness of what transpires, the uncertainty of the circumstances proves integral to the method for both torturer and playwright.
Cataloging those unpleasantnesses would be counterproductive, though it’s worth noting this: Years of post-9/11 pop-cultural navel-gazing may have inured the American public somewhat to depictions of torture, but the oppressive intimacy of this Factory 449 production underscores live theater’s singular ability to turn the audience’s stomach. Sound and sight and especially smell drive home the interrogation’s vulgarity and invasiveness.
Under Rick Hammerly’s urgent, admirably disciplined direction, Barker and Wilson attack the play’s deliberately stilted diction with an intensity that arguably fits the circumstances, but that also creates doubt and distance between audience and character. Intentional? Quite possibly, because Bharadwaj’s grim wail of a play seems meant to register as a universal rather than a specific lament. It’s still frustrating for anyone wanting to come to grips with what’s transpiring so vividly, so nearby, so right now, in a space not much bigger than that mysterious closet.
1231 Good Hope Road SE. $22. (202) 355-9449. anacostiaartscenter.com.