In the good old days, Generals could enjoy a proper war where both sides were expected to meet on a battlefield and maneuver their troops in a carefully balanced dance of death where each army was composed of similar units using similar tactics. With the “War On Terror” a new form of warfare became prominent. One in which each side had drastically different goals, equipment and strategies. Industrialized nations fired million-dollar missiles at ten-dollar tents, while insurgents used improvised explosive devices to blow up multi-million-dollar armored vehicles. Western soldiers risked their lives to save wounded brethren while martyrs actively courted death as an objective unto itself. This new form of war is called “Asymmetric Warfare”. Mac Rogers’ new play Asymmetric is about the War On Terror, but it’s also about another form of warfare – marriage.
Spy fiction is typically presented in print or on the big screen, but with Asymmetric, playwright Mac Rogers tries to incorporate as much as possible from the spy genre onto a one-room set. There is high-tech robot drone that is oft-mentioned, but never seen. A couple of characters head out on an assassination mission, but the action happens offstage. A squad of heavily armed government agents are frequently said to be waiting just behind one of the stage doors, but the audience never sees any of this.
The direction by Rogers’ long-time collaborator, Jordana Williams assumes that audiences are familiar enough with the tropes of Jason Bourne and James Bond that they can easily imagine what is happening offstage. Almost the entire show takes place inside an interrogation room of a government agency called the “Fifth Floor”.
Josh (Played by Sean Williams) is a former spy with the Fifth Floor. However his current employment status is a combination of “Retired”, “Washed-up” and “Drunk”. As is often the case with retired spies, he is reluctantly called back into action for One… Last… Job…
Josh’s former underling Zack (Seth Shelden) has run into some sort of trouble and is so desperate that he has turned to Josh for help – but Zack won’t explain all the details. As audiences would expect, there are several plot twists ahead about the nature of the Fifth Floor’s secrets, but an early revelation is that Josh’s ex-wife Sunny (Kate Middleton) has sold America’s secrets to nefarious individuals, for unknown reasons. A clock is ticking, and the best way to get Sunny to talk is by having Josh handle the interrogation.
At different times in their marriage Sunny and Josh each had the upper hand but, at the end, it was Sunny who left and Josh who was begging her not to go. Now he has his chance for closure/payback. However, during the interrogation, it isn’t clear who has the upper hand now. Sunny has important information, but a word from Josh could place her in the hands of a sadistic agent played by Rob Maitner. Because they’re both accomplished agents, Sunny and Josh are each uncertain how the other truly feels. The audience will spend a significant portion of the show wondering who is manipulating who.
As the plot unfurls, Rogers addresses some topical political issues. Early on the audience is told that the Fifth Floor is developing a new kind of unmanned drone. Drones have been a surprisingly controversial addition to the latest wars, and they make a good focus for near-future speculative fiction. Asymmetric focuses the ethical ramifications of making more advanced drones, but the fictional “Icarus” drone depicted in the play is so futuristic that it sounds like something out of Star Trek.
At first, Icarus is said to have some amazing-yet-plausible abilities but, as the play progresses, Icarus becomes a Luddite boogeyman with an increasingly large set of fanciful features. Each of these ideas would make a great idea for a spy thriller, but when they are all combined together it sounds like something better suited to Captain Picard than Jack Ryan.
Asymmetric also suffers from a plot twist that is telegraphed very early in the show. Genre-savvy audiences are likely to see this twist coming long before the climactic scene where it becomes relevant. Given that the show clocks in at under 90 minutes, this diminishes a great deal of the suspense.
In between the broken relationships and robots, Asymmetric also tackles another theme: Propaganda. In the past, if America’s secrets fell into the wrong hands it could mean the death of soldiers and citizens. Nowadays the government is equally concerned about looking bad when their misdeeds come to light. Going into details would be a spoiler, but Asymmetric eventually deals with a Wikileaks subplot that further illustrates the asymmetrical nature of America’s recent wars.
Although the spy fiction isn’t on the same caliber as the best of James Bond, Asymmetric is quite strong when analyzing Josh and Sunny’s relationship. In these moments it is at its most theatrical and compelling. It is currently playing at 59 E 59 in midtown Manhattan, and runs through December 6th. More information is available at www.gideonth.com.