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Monday, March 18, 2024

Journalism on Stage: The Connector and Corruption

Sanjit De Silva and Toby Stephens in Corruption. (Photo: T Charles Erickson)

In his new play, Corruption, which opened last week at Lincoln Center, the excellent American political playwright J.T. Rogers dramatizes the scandal in Britain that brought down Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper News of the World when it was revealed that phone hacking and police bribery were commonplace procedures at the publication. Most of the targets were show-biz celebrities, politicians and members of the royal family, but the investigation showed that the phones of thousands of ordinary citizens had also been hacked, including those of a murdered schoolgirl and the relatives of victims of the 2005 London bombings. Rogers’s previous plays include The Overwhelming (about the Rwandan genocide), Blood and Gifts (about the war in Afghanistan) and the Tony Award-winning Oslo (about the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and Palestine). Corruption is based on Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain, an account of the scandal co-written by two men who took major roles in illuminating it: Tom Watson, a Member of Parliament (and future Labour Party Deputy Leader) serving on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and Martin Hickman, a journalist for The Independent.

Rogers has chosen Watson (played by Toby Stephens) as his protagonist, but he doesn’t attempt to whitewash him: as government whip during Gordon Brown’s tenure as Prime Minister, his assertiveness crossed the line into bullying and intimidation. When Watson attempts to enlist a fellow MP, Chris Bryant (K. Todd Freeman), in the uncovering of the News of the World debacle, Bryant’s initial reluctance is personal: he hasn’t forgiven Tom for homophobic slurs, and when he does join the fight he insists that their collaboration isn’t an indication of friendship. Still, the lines that separate the good guys from the bad guys in this drama are very clear. It’s an intelligent, well-acted production, exciting (especially in the second act), directed by Bartlett Sher (who staged both Oslo and Blood and Gifts) with his usual command of rhythm and tempo and his highly skillful choreographing of ensembles, and Michael Yeargan has designed a fine set, a halo of screens playing news clips that spins over the stage. But by definition agit-prop plays aren’t subtle. The English playwright James Graham, who wrote Ink (about Murdoch’s early career) and Dear England among others, tends to present rousing material in an entertaining fashion in the first act and then convince himself in the second that he’s making a profound statement; you end up feeling cheated. Rogers reaches farther in Blood and Gifts and certainly in Oslo, which is his best work; in Corruption he’s satisfied to let the material speak for itself. I don’t think that’s a failing; neither the play nor the production makes extravagant claims for itself, and the subject matter is undeniably compelling and infuriating. But his writing here has more punch than elegance.

Everyone in the cast shuttles among two, three, four or five parts except for Stephens and Saffron Burrows, who plays the chief villain, News of the World’s editor, Rebekah Brooks. Besides them, the standout performers are Freeman, Sanjit De Silva (as Hickman and others), Spideh Moafi (whose main role is the hard-hitting, righteous lawyer Charlotte Harris), Nick Davies (as The Guardian’s most brilliant investigative journalist) and John Behlmann (front and center as Brooks’s cowed husband Charlie). As the counsel for News of the World, Tom Crone, Dylan Baker produces the kind of slippery malevolence he’s embodied in other character roles, but he’s certainly adept at it. Toward the end he spins a surprise for us, returning as the creepy private eye Glen Mulcaire, who supervised most of the dirty doings, and Baker has a field day. So does Michael Siberry as Max Mosley, a businessman whose sordid sexual life and Nazi sympathies News of the World exposed and who refuses to show remorse for his behavior. (Siberry has one sensational understated moment, when he alludes to his son’s response to the revelations: he killed himself.) Unfortunately, Seth Numrich, who was so good in War Horse, Leopoldstadt and Sher’s revival of Golden Boy, doesn’t make much of a mark as Rupert Murdoch’s son James, who oversees News of the World. Murdoch Sr. doesn’t appear in the play.

The timeliness of the material in Corruption is both a virtue and a weakness. When the phone hacking scandal closed down News of the World in 2011 and Prime Minister David Cameron opened a wide inquiry into the widespread illicit practices in Murdoch’s journalistic empire, the notion of fake news was still in its infancy. But in the age of Trump no lie is so extravagant, no conduct so nefarious that it still has the power to shock us, however much it may raise our hackles. You can see all the connections Rogers is making to the demagoguery to come: Rebekah Brooks’s pattern whenever anyone tries to make her look bad is to yell and threaten and then claim that she’s representing the working class, who are sick and tired of being lied to and ill-treated. He strikes the chord he wants to strike but, for reasons the playwright is helpless to control, it lacks the potency to knock us flat. He ends the play in uplift, just as any agit-prop writer in the Depression era would have been trained to do, and, all things considered, it’s not the worst idea he could have embraced.

Scott Bakula and Ben Levi Ross in The Connector. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The musical The Connector was inspired by the story of Stephen Glass, the young New Republic journalist in the mid-nineties who turned out to have fabricated, in part or entirely, most of his feature articles. In the play, which was conceived by the director, Daisy Prince, with a very smart book by Jonathan Marc Sherman and a strong score by Jason Robert Brown, the magazine is called The Connector. The young man is a recent Princeton grad named Ethan Dobson (Ben Levi Ross) who impresses its editor, Conrad O’Brien (Scott Bakula), with a story he published in the alumni magazine and charms him with his adulation of The Connector and his encyclopedic knowledge of its history. Conrad hires Ethan as a fact checker and takes him under his wing, publishing his first journalistic effort and moving him with astonishing rapidity to the writing staff, praising the beauty of his sentences and encouraging him to make his stories more political, more daring. He regales Ethan with stories about his career in drinking sessions at the local bar – Conrad made his bones as a Vietnam War correspondent and his own mentor was a legendary Connector editor – and isn’t shy about downplaying the contributions of more seasoned writers on the staff in comparison to Ethan’s. But other Connector staffers see through Ethan’s flattery: first the head fact checker, Muriel (Jessica Molaskey), and eventually Ethan’s first friend at the magazine, Robin Martinez (Hannah Cruz), who can’t get O’Brien to pay attention to her writing because he doesn’t take female writers seriously.

Ethan’s psychology is as mysterious as Steve Glass’s in Shattered Glass, Billy Ray’s memorable movie about the New Republic scandal, based on Buzz Bissinger’s Vanity Fair article, which starred Hayden Christensen in the title role and Peter Sarsgaard as his editor, Chuck Lane. Ethan is eerie around Conrad: he seems to be trying to memorize his boss. And he’s alternately warm to Robin and distant from her; at times they’re in the same room but he seems to be occupying a different space. When she decides to take a job at another publication because the editor (Eliseo Rom├ín) is enthusiastic about her work, Ethan’s response is remarkably mean-spirited and dismissive; he talks to her as if she were a traitor, though she’s still not even a Connector writer. It’s as if, for him, there’s only The Connector, so when she migrates to another venue in his view she’s fallen off the edge of the universe.

Unless you spot the parallels between Dobson and Steve Glass straight off, it may take a while to catch on that his stories are invented out of whole cloth. At first I saw the character as a relative of J. Pierrepont Finch, the climber in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and I assumed that what he was after was Conrad O’Brien’s job. As a writer Dobson really seems to be everything Conrad says he is; it’s just that he’s a fiction writer, not a journalist. And his articles contain ingenious twists that function as safeguards against fact checking. His first, about a Greenwich Village Scrabble champ named Waldo Pine who makes money by taking on challengers (played by Max Crumm in a terrific number, “Success”), ends with Ethan returning to his crib the next night and finding that the building has been locked down, so there’s no way Ethan can find him again. This coda extends Waldo’s quirkiness; it doesn’t strike us until later that all of Ethan’s stories are constructed so that in the end they swallow up their subjects. But when Ethan writes a piece about the mayor of a New Jersey city whose crack smoking was ostensibly caught on a video that has since vanished in mid-air (obviously Sherman was thinking about Marion Berry), Muriel protests that the magazine can’t publish a piece about an elected politician that makes claims no one can prove. O’Brien stands behind his writer, and the show loses us for a couple of scenes – it’s one thing for an editor to get so swept up in his new star writer’s dazzle that he misses a couple of beats and quite another for him to publish a scurrilous claim about a standing mayor without a shred of actual evidence. Sherman figures a way out of the corner he’s written himself into, but it’s a flaw in the book, perhaps its only flaw. (I also liked Sherman’s book for a musical version of Paul Mazursky’s movie Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which The New Group produced in 2020 before the theatres shut down.)

Ross, a startlingly talented actor-singer who played Evan Hansen on tour, offers a fascinating (and extremely creepy) portrait of a young man who lives in an invented world and begins to fall apart when he’s finally exposed, due largely to a persnickety Connector fan named Mona Bland (a note-perfect performance by Mylinda Hull) with a habit of writing letters to the magazine whenever she spots an error in print. There are no dim spots in the cast, which also showcases Daniel Jenkins as the magazine’s counsel. Cruz gives a dynamic performance, though she isn’t well served by “Cassandra,” her solo about the glass ceiling, any more than Molaskey is by hers about her dedication to absolute truth in journalism (“Proof”): Brown has framed these numbers too transparently to bring down the house, and both are too on the nose. Bakula is splendid as Conrad, which is the linchpin role; the musical couldn’t work without an actor who hits the ideal combination of ego, nostalgia and moral conviction. Daisy Prince’s staging, on an appealing Beowulf Boritt set, is kinetic and imaginative, as is Karla Puno Garcia’s choreography. The Connector was extended twice before it closed, finally, last weekend. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of it.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

 

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