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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The dramatized replay of Jayson Blair, now named Jay Bennett and played with the required perplexing charm by Kobi Libii, is flavored with enough authenticity to feel like a documentary. According to a Playbill feature (A Sign of The Times by Robert Simonson, January 26, 2012) playwright McKinley comes to that authentic voice from having worked at the Times where as news assistant he actually knew Blair. What's more, journalism is part of the McKinley family's DNA. His father worked for Esquire and Playboy and his brothers Jesse and James are still New York Times staffers.
As the real Jayson Blair is easily recognized in McKinley's Jay Bennett, so the other eight characters have their real life counterparts. While some are composites of the various people whose path Blair crossed, there's no missing that Arliss Howard's Hal Martin and Peter Jay Fernandez's Gerald Haynes are the doomed executive and managing editors Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd. Even less camouflaged is David Pittu's Junior, the publisher still just three years into his guardianship of the family's legacy, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. (Blair's many CQs even included misspelling the publisher's name!).
Since CQ/CX focuses on the story of one bad apple among a fine, purposefully diverse crop of bright journalism career hopefuls, McKinley aptly launches his drama with Pittu's Junior welcoming the 1998 Reston, Rosenbaum and Morgan fellows (a still existing internship program) with a slide show. Jay, an African-American from DC is one of the chosen, as are Jacob Sherman (Steve Rosen), a Jewish native New Yorker, and Monica Soria (Sheila Tapia) a Mexican-American from San Antonio, Texas.
From this first of several scenes enhanced by Peter Nigrini and C. Andrew Bauer's projections, the action, which coincides with the time span of the actual events, moves to various editors' offices, Jay's apartment and a nearby hangout for drinking, snacking and socializing. The bar scenes, which are dominated by the three young interns, also serve to introduce Frank King (the always excellent Larry Bryggman who shines in a relatively small but extremely well developed role of an old-timer on his way to an unwanted early retirement).
The social interaction between Jay, Jacob and Monica establish the conflicting aspects of Jay's personality. We see the fun-loving charmer who seems thoroughly smitten with New York and being at the New York Times. He loves to gossip but is reluctant to reveal much about himself and tends to sniff coke to relieve tension. He claims Jacob and Monica as his buddies. His promise to keep mum about their romance does not preclude his making a move on Monica.
Like most of the editors, Jacob and Monica are at first taken in by Jay's charm. When he talks ecstatically about his daily joy at looking out at the city when he crosses the Brooklyn Bridge from his apartment to Manhattan, Jacob, in one of McKinley's wittiest comments declares "Look at Jay. . ..heís Nick Carraway in Gatsby, on fire for the city. Wide eyed and lovely. Iím envious of that feeling. I grew up here, born with bagel in hand, Iíll never have that awe of coming to New York." While no one will ever be able to really understand just what was going on beneath the attractive outer shell of this ambitious young man to make him turn the opportunity of a much coveted internship into a self-destructive pattern of dishonest reporting. But watching the events that make Jacob realize that Jay is really Jay Gatsby and not Nick Carraway, makes for an intriguing two hours. What made him what he is may remain a puzzle, but it's nevertheless fascinating to watch the monster inside him surface and the ripple effect wreaked by his downfall.
Given that what made this scandal one of such major proportions was that the flim-flam charade was allowed to go on for so long, much of the dramatic conflict of CQ/CX revolves around the disagreement among some of the editors most involved with Jay. Ben (played with apt frustration by Tim Hopper), the Metropolitan Desk Editor who sees recognizes Jay as acting like the kid who tells the teacher that his dog at the homework quite understandably disagrees with Gerald and Hal, who only see a writer whose "words sing."
McKinley does not shy away from the race issue that surfaced along with the scandal, as his manipulative Jay is not afraid to play the race card with Gerald. When Gerald tells him that he will destroy everything that ethical black journalists like him have worked for, Jay taunts him with "You know what they call you and Hal? Huck Finn and Nigger Jim." As Gerald's warnings fail to stir a dormant honor code, so Frank King's playing Paul Revere with a midnight calling alerting him to trouble, doesn't prevent the eventual explosion.
The already mentioned projections are an imaginative way to allow David Rockwell to keep the steel gray set uncluttered. Ben Stanton's lights and David Van Tieghem's propulsive music and sound add to the slick, suspenseful aura of the production.
The article referred to in the play that the Times published to explain the background of the scandal, is available on line and makes for interesting follow-up reading. (http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/11/us/correcting-the-record-times-reporter-who-resigned-leaves-long-trail-of-deception.html?src=pm==) As for Blair's post-Times life, he did write a memoir that was published but understandably taken by most with more than a grain of salt. He's currently working as a Life Coach, though I doubt that he specializes in how to be a successful ethical journalist.
I'd like to have seen McKinley depart enough from his journalistic roots to allow his imagination to create a less fact-tethered, more in-depth human drama. Still, based on his previous off-Broadway play <Extinction and CQ/CX, I hope TV and the movies don't keep him from writing more plays for live theater.
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