Thursday, March 21, 2024

Corruption (Lincoln Center Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Playwright J.T. Rogers -- whose “Oslo,” about the Arab-Israeli Peace Accord, was memorably mounted at Lincoln Center Theater under the direction of Bartlett Sher -- returns with another ripped-from-the-headlines tale, also directed by Sher, this time concerning the 2010-11 phone hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World in the U.K. 

Writing much in the vein of David Hare (think “The Absence of War” or the Murdoch inspired “Pravda”), Rogers skillfully creates maximum suspense and tension and paints a picture of an environment where, as one character puts it, “government, privacy, and trust are malleable.” Even the police, it is revealed, are involved in the dirty doings.

Toby Stephens plays Tom Watson, the member of Parliament who, as government whip under Prime Minister Gordon Brown (Anthony Cochrane), had himself been smeared by the press, takes on unmasking the rampant phone hacking tactics (against non-celebrities and bold-faced names alike) undertaken under the leadership of formidable chief executive of News International Group, Rebekah Brooks (Saffron Burrows).

Watson does so, even though the ensuing notoriety may jeopardize his wife (Robyn Kerr) and young son. He enlists the help of journalists Martin Hickman (Sanji de Silva) of The Independent and Nick Davies (T. Ryder Smith) from The Guardian as well as solicitor Charlotte Harris (Sepideh Moafi). Rupert Murdoch’s son James (Seth Numrich) is ostensibly Brooks’ boss, but as she’s firmly entrenched in the elder Murdoch’s good graces, he stands little chance of diminishing her power, much as he’s inclined to denigrate print in favor of his pet projects, TV and new media. Brooks, for her part, is aided every step of her ruthless way by the paper’s chief counsel Tom Crone (Dylan Baker). 

Rogers based the play on Watson and Hickman’s book, “Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain.”

The Yank-Brit cast is uniformly excellent. Besides all those mentioned, Michael Siberry has some choice moments as wealthy Max Mosely, a victim of the News of the World’s spying tactics, as do Eleanor Handley as New York Times reporter Jo Becker whom Watson and his colleagues try to interest in the story, and K. Todd Freeman as gay MP Chris Bryant, once attacked by Watson, but now enlisted to help in the cause. 

All the actors, except for Stephen and Burrows, play multiple roles which can sometimes cause momentary confusion. So, too, despite Rogers’ expository skill, following the narrative might be a bit challenging, at least for an American audience. Nonetheless, the main thrust of the narrative is clear enough. 

Sher directs at a fast pace and generates requisite momentum even with the dense talk. 

Stephens is terrific, expertly conveying his conflict as he tries, for the sake of his family, to stay neutral on the issue but inexorably drawn into it. And Burrows is convincingly commanding and intimidating as his hard-as-nails nemesis.

There are personal stories here too to balance all the industry talk. There’s the domestic friction between Watson and his wife Siobhan. And Brooks and her new husband Charles (John Behlmann) are attempting to have a child through a somewhat reluctant surrogate mother (also Kerr) whom they fear may change her mind.

Michael Yeagan’s set includes circular sectional tables which continually change position as the narrative unfolds, while newsroom monitors on an overhead ring keeps the eye dazzled, along with back projections of text and video by 59 Productions/ Benjamin Pearcy and Brad Peterson

(Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater,150 West 65 Street;

Photo by Charles Erickson: (l.-r.) John Behlmann, Eleanor Handley and Toby Stephens.

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