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‘The Farm’ mines mind of CIA agent

Jules Becker

Where do CIA agents go when their term of service seems to be ending? Do they retrain for new responsibilities? Do they sign an oath of confidentiality and simply retire? Or is life much more complicated for them?

In the case of Walt McGough’s haunting new play “The Farm” — a very compelling season opener at Boston Playwright’s Theatre — answering these questions may be as challenging and problematic as a CIA operation.

After 24 years in the field, Finn — the fictional 55-year-old white agent in question — is being questioned by a fairly young African American woman named Parker. Trying to act cavalier, Finn puts down the drab 2004 Langley Level B3 office where he is interrogated — credit designer Jon Savage’s properly spare set complete with photos of then President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and CIA Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet.

Finn also boasts of surviving the Clinton years. Analyst Parker praises him for being “very good at your job” yet suggests that he doesn’t know how the real world works. Will the title farm — CIA talk for its special training center — provide Finn with new training for the field or prepare him for reality?

McGough shrewdly keeps the audience guessing. What follows is an absorbing battle of wits in which Parker tries to tie up all the loose ends in Finn’s involvement with an unnamed Berlin-based man in one case and a Middle Eastern trainee identified as Khalil in another. As the questioning ensues, seasoned theatergoers will call to mind the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Cold War that preceded its fall.

At the same time, the ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts hover in the air as the ghost of Khalil-barefoot, dressed in white and seen only by the agent and the audience — entered and exited repeatedly  throughout the taut, 90-minute play.

 To what extent is Finn responsible for the respective deaths of the Berliner and Khalil? What are the moral ramifications of his action and inaction in dealing with each one? Will he ever find the kind of serenity and peace of mind which he appears to desire?

McGough, a Boston University MFA in playwriting recipient clearly has the confidence and the artistry to keep Finn alternating between restrained and volatile responses to Parker’s questions and reactions. Along the way, theatergoers pick up details about Finn’s divorce and his estrangement from his now grown-up son, as well as insights about the differences between new guard and old guard agents.

Ultimately the tensions between Finn and Parker reach a resolution that is at once surprising and highly dramatic yet far from unreasonable. Audiences are not likely to forget that resolution or, for that matter, this arresting drama.

Premier director David R. Gammons (“Blackbird” for SpeakEasy Stage and “The Duchess of Malfi” for Actors’ Shakespeare Project, among other local stagings) kept the volleys of charges and countercharges as well as opposing philosophies about the CIA between Finn and Parker as rapid and rich as a championship tennis match.

Dale Place turned Finn, arguably his best role and performance in recent years, into a tour de force combination of conflicting emotions as well as frustration boiling over into a properly scary outburst. Lindsey McWhorter smartly underplayed as Parker, building the new guard agent’s reservations about Finn with striking gestures and vocal insinuation. Noel Nacer made the most of the Berliner’s telling moments with Finn and especially Khalil’s movement around the stage and in front of the audience as he seems to wear away at Finn’s conscience.

 Finn sees Khalil frequently asking him if he has the time.

The Farm, Boston Playwrights Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave., or 866-811-4111.