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In early June 2013, two journalists—columnist Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras—arrived in Hong Kong to meet with a disgruntled techie named Edward Snowden. Remember him? A million news cycles ago Snowden became famous for using his top-secret government security clearance to download a cache of documents proving that the National Security Agency surveilled Americans on a vast and indiscriminate scale, dropping into our digital lives to collect as many as three billion pieces of information in a single month. Snowden had come to Hong Kong to prepare for life on the lam, Greenwald and Poitras to get hold of his files. News stories based on the material started appearing just a few days later.
Gabriel McKinley’s The Source is clearly inspired by these events. Or informed by them, anyway. Getting its world premiere now in a Route 66 Theatre production directed by Jason Gerace, the play draws its premise from the Hong Kong parlay—and plenty of details too, even down to Snowden’s real-life code name, Verax. But then it veers off into what-if territory, positing an alternate set of outcomes so strangely, unproductively at odds with its, um, source that you end up wondering why McKinley didn’t just go ahead and invent something out of whole cloth instead.
This isn’t fantasy history a la The Man in the High Castle, where we get to speculate on the nature of a nonexistent world, such as the one where the Nazis won World War II. This feels more like a strange type of bait and switch.
McKinley’s Greenwald figure is Vernon, a jumpy, prim 40-year-old newsman immersed in the fine points and paranoia of cyber espionage. His first moves on entering the hotel room he’s taken in an unnamed “foreign” city are to search for bugs (the electronic kind) and pull the heavy curtains closed against the possibility of remote snoops. When his pseudo Poitras, Oona, arrives the following day, he insists on calling her “Mrs. Babbage” per the cloak-and-dagger protocol he’s been given.
Oona turns out to be a 30-year-old free spirit—not merely a foil to Vernon but his polar opposite. Where Vernon’s default outfit is a business suit, she wears desert-war khakis. Where he’s thoroughly digitized, spending his life in a computer-screen glow, she’s philosophically analog, having only just conceded the necessity of a flip phone. (“I think Steve Jobs is a cultural war criminal,” she tells Vernon, “turned the whole world into drooling zombies.”) Where he’s “as tightly wound as a Swiss watch”—and a health-conscious one, at that—she smokes like a chimney. Among Oona’s first moves as she settles into the room they’ll share for the next week are to reopen the curtains and insist he stop calling her Mrs. Babbage.
The comic potential in this meeting-of-opposites setup should be obvious to anybody who’s seen It Happened One Night. But McKinley and Gerace either haven’t seen that particular movie or don’t care to dally with humor given the more solemn intention they have in mind. What exactly that intention is gets a little muddled. As I’ve mentioned, it definitely doesn’t involve a faithful historical account of what happened when Greenwald and Poitras saw Snowden in Hong Kong. No, McKinley’s big idea seems to reside on an allegorical plane where Oona and Vernon aren’t characters so much as principles, their opposition tending toward archetype rather than romance: head vs. heart, science vs. art, certainty vs. receptivity. That binary sort of thing. Coupled with this dialectic—or, more accurately, competing with it—is an attempted commentary on the evils of the surveillance society. The Source is subtitled Panopticon, referring to the concept, put forward by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, of a prison where a single guard can keep order because the prisoners can’t tell when the guard may be spying on them. Welcome, McKinley wants to say, to the panopticon.
It’s possible that McKinley’s script isn’t really as dour as it seems here. Maybe Gerace and his cast of two, Kristina Valada-Viars and Cody Proctor, simply can’t find their way to the comic absurdities proliferating around wild Oona and tight-ass Vernon as they pursue their serious business. But having seen Proctor and Valada-Viars do fine, funny work before, I doubt it. The atmosphere is tense and earnest—and less than coherent—throughout. Unformed as it is, the big idea remains oppressively present. The Source may resonate with It Happened One Night, but the result is all No Exit. v