‘Roan @ the Gates,’ a play about whistleblowing and its aftermath, debuts at Luna Stage

Roan Gates review

JODY CHRISTOPHERSON

Aaliyah Habeeb and Mel House co-star in “Roan @ The Gates” at Luna Stage in West Orange.

“Roan @ The Gates,” which is currently making its world premiere at Luna Stage in West Orange, is being marketed as a play about cybersecurity, internet privacy and whistleblowing. And that’s true, to an extent. But this play, written by Christina Gorman and directed by Michelle Tattenbaum, seemed to me to be more about the relationship between its two characters, than in anything topical. It’s really, ultimately, a story about a marriage.

When we first meet Roan (Mel House) and Nat (Aaliyah Habeeb), there are few hints of what is to come. Roan, who is about to go on a mysterious trip, is feeling sick; Nat, who seems to be the more take-charge person in the relationship, fusses over her a bit. But nothing really seems out of the ordinary.

The second scene, though, plunges us into cyberthriller territory. Roan, a data analyst for the National Security Agency, has launched an international scandal by going public with the details of a project she has been working on — which, she believes, gives the government frightening power to intrude on the privacy of its citizens. (We’re told she is, in fact, the main person behind the project, even though she was not aware of its implications when she started it.) She is now in exile in Russia. And the rest of the play consists of her (1) explaining what has happened to Nat and (2) trying to sustain the relationship, now that this has happened.

We never see the journalist who helped Roan go public with her information, or those assisting her in exile. We never see anyone else, for that matter — it’s a two-person play. Nor do we see Roan learning the truth about her project, or making the decision to blow the whistle: These things have happened before the play starts. And that’s why it’s not really a cyberthriller: Roan tells us this project represents a huge danger, and we have to take her word for it.

Furthermore, there’s nothing she can really do in exile, except wait, and wonder if she and Nat are being spied on, though we never learn if they are.

And so the focus is on Roan and Nat’s relationship. How could Roan have made this decision without consulting Nat? (She couldn’t involve Nat for security reasons, but is that really a valid excuse?) Is there anything Nat can do to help, after the fact? And can the headstrong Nat (who is more of the whistleblower type, of the two) deal with the fact that the unassuming Roan has had the temerity to upend their lives?

The play consists, basically, of a series of conversations between the two — either in person or via Skype. (And yes, it did seem unrealistic that Nat is so easily able to get in touch with someone who is, basically, on the run, but there would be no play without Gorman making that stretch.)

That said, the conversations do seem real and raw — House and Habeeb effectively convey the brittle emotions of two characters thrown into an impossible situation — and the play may inspire some people to start thinking about potential online dangers they hadn’t previously considered. But “Roan @ The Gates” ultimately feels like a sequel to a more exciting play that doesn’t exist: The real action was in the nonexistent Part 1, and in Part 2, they deal with the aftermath.

“Roan @ The Gates” will be at Luna Stage in West Orange through Feb. 24; visit lunastage.org.

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