“There’s a framed diploma on the wall one and a half feet to the right of my head that I could pull off and use to crack your skull if you tried anything,” says a recently retired C.I.A. operative to a young intelligence analyst who is determined to get to the bottom of the murder of an informant in Paris. This sort of aggressive dialogue runs through “The Farm,” a new play written by Walt McGough and directed by David R. Gammons running at the Boston Playwrights Theatre until October 23. Through a conversation that often feels like a duel between a seasoned field operative and a young up-and-coming agent, “The Farm” brilliantly explores the emotional cost and moral ambiguities faced by the members of America’s intelligence community.
Finn (Dale Place) has been a C.I.A. field operative for over 20 years. However, he decides to retire shortly after one of his most promising informants, Kalil, dies mysteriously in Paris. Parker (Lindsey McWhorter), a young analyst, has been tasked with trying to minimize any potential damage that the murder might cause. Throughout their conversation the ghost of Kalil (Nael Nacer), never named but referred to as “the enemy,” stalks across the stage, providing Finn with a visible reminder of all of the lives he was forced to take in the line of duty.
The acting is superb all around and Place plays the cold warrior Finn brilliantly. His character is almost bipolar; he displays a cool, ruthless confidence when he holds the upper hand, but becomes a fidgeting emotional wreck when pressed on his conduct in the field. His Finn has bravado and charisma, but also vulnerability, and every minute bodily movement works to communicate the emotional turmoil inside him.
McWhorter’s Parker is almost the exact opposite of Finn. While he expresses his professionalism with a disarming swagger, McWhorter almost never breaks out of an icy shell. This means she doesn’t steal the spotlight from Place, but makes the moments when she does begin to reveal herself some of the most profound in the play. Nacer manages to capture a sense of otherworldly detachment in his portrayal of “the enemy,” as Kalil’s ghost takes on broader significance as a phantom representation of all the people Finn has killed. Over the course of the play he assumes the personalities of various people, all the while maintaining an almost blank expression on his face. He manages to consistently maintain the illusion that he is just a figment of Finn’s imagination without sacrificing emotional gravity. His performance allows the production room to grow in intriguing and even unexpected directions.
The sense of conflict is heightened by very well-timed use of sound effects. In one scene McWhorter, to counter a point made by Place, throws his case file to him. When it hits the desks, the sound is magnified and enhanced by a recording of a file hitting a desk played over the speakers. The sound is larger than life, and reflects the importance of the files for Finn. This, combined with sound effects that are played when Nacer is on stage, allows for Finn’s unconscious to become a character in its own right. For example, the sound of a ticking clock plays when Nacer first enters the stage. He asks Finn for the time while Finn is having a conversation with Parker. The effect is a visual and aural representation of Finn’s shattered emotional state.
In contrast to the stellar performances by the cast, the directing is at times underwhelming. There are some crucial moments in the play in which the actors are actually held back by their direction. In one key scene towards the end of the play, during which Finn finally begins to confront his decisions, he delivers a large part of his monologue with his back to the audience. Given that his face is incredibly expressive, concealing it from the audience during the play’s emotional climax is an unfortunate choice. What should be an incredibly moving scene becomes awkward when deprived of Place’s face, which is otherwise used to great effect to communicate Finn’s emotional nuance.
Despite these directorial hiccups, Walt McGough’s “The Farm” is an enthralling new piece of theatre that showcases some terrific acting. With a combination of dark comedy and psychological insight, it offers a look into the human mind while also giving us a sneak peak into the back rooms of Langley, Va. The result is a modern spy thriller of a quality that is rarely seen on stage.
—Staff writer Noah S. Guiney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.