It had been a difficult day at the arts conference. Late on a May afternoon in a dark-paneled bar in Los Angeles, a fellow correspondent thoughfully gazed into his highball glass before asking, in lofty tones, "Is a theater critic a newspaperman?" Almost immediately, the sage to his right archly replied, "Is a barnacle a boat?" Rueful, knowing laughter erupted among my fellow cutthroats in this wretched craft.
I only bring the anecdote up to call into question my own bona fides on plays that criticize the media. It only seems fair. After all, longtime readers will recall my fatigue after viewing Permanent Collection and The Story in September, two works that respectively critiqued the newspaper business as a subplot and its main item of business (see "Paper men (and women,") Indy, Sept. 14, 2005). Both works preceded the Playmakers' production of The Front Page, that chronicle of chummy corruption in Chicago's Fourth Estate during the Roaring Twenties, which we applauded in October.
Two months later, Burning Coal now sends up coverage of our current conflicts overseas in A New War, Gip Hoppe's broad pastiche of wholesale journalistic malfeasance that greeted (and arguably still greets) the War on Terror.
As it happens, I saw A New War three days after catching the worthy resurrection of Marc Blitzstein's controversial 1930s pro-union musical The Cradle Will Rock at UNC's Historic Playmakers Theater. Blitzstein's Cradle, I will note, just as caustically criticizes the media of its day. Cradle's Editor Daily ultimately sells out to millionaire industrialist Mr. Mister just as vividly (and hypocritically) as Dr. Specialist, Reverend Salvation and President Prexy, members all of an imaginatively named "Liberty Committee."
Between those two viewings, a letter to the editor in the News & Observer caught my eye--an apologia of sorts for Sen. Joe McCarthy by former Spectator publisher Bernie Reeves.
To make the scene complete, I'd seen the Edward R. Murrow biopic Good Night, and Good Luck the week before.
I'll confess I had markedly different reactions to each of these moments of political theater--just as I responded variably to the earlier media critiques of the season. As I left a matinee screening of Good Night, I felt deeply ambivalent. True, far too much of the backstory in the Clooney film had been elided for my comfort. In trusting that its audience already knows the story of the witch hunts of the 1950s, Good Night likely writes off an entire generation, if not two by now--everyone, in short, younger than the older part of the Boomer crowd. Not only do today's high school students return the blankest look when asked who Murrow or McCarthy were, folks 10 years their senior--including many undergrads and graduate students--don't fare much better.
To the uninformed, I fear the results of Clooney's work may well have been the political, film noir equivalent of some Godzilla movie with more production values--stylish and poised, yes, but ultimately a work in which two larger-than-life forces grapple without the audience ever getting that much insight into their motivation.
These misgivings are not small. Even their presence, though, didn't keep me from gratefully concluding, as I left the theater, "Yes, that's what it looks like when a reporter (and his editor) stands up and speaks truth to power."
My point: We'd basically have to rely on archive footage--or extremely long-term memory--for a visual example of equal integrity. Ted Koppel's memorable grilling of then-FEMA director Michael Brown after Hurricane Katrina is the only footage in recent years that even comes close.
Dramaturg Anthony Fischera, once again, is correct: The changing social circumstances that made The Cradle Will Rock 's 1964 revival featuring Jerry Orbach an irrelevance have now returned the work to frightening topicality. The hoarding classes, to use playwright Jose Rivera's term, are steadily eroding away the middle ground, and with it, the middle class. After two short decades of union-busting activity, a trustworthy pension is now the stuff of dreams. Few American parents believe their children will have a better life than they do.
So by all means, Julie Fishera and Terry Rhodes, roll that collection of newsreels from yesteryear before the opening of Cradle. Pray the largely undergraduate audience notes the mix of propaganda ("U.S. Must Have Tight Neutrality Laws," one headline shouts) with opiates (the distractingly pretty Gibson girls in furs featured in another).
Then let's all hope they get the message when the Universal leader starts counting down again, after Blitzstein's last note at the end--the unmistakable signal that the film (and the times) are about to repeat.
By contrast, A New War merely leaves us exhausted. The fault doesn't lie with the talented quartet of actors on stage. As co-anchors of an ersatz cable news show, Robin Dorff gives what is probably the most assured performance I've seen from him to date as News Man, while Serena Ebhardt radiates the professional chill of News Woman.
Quinn Hawkesworth ably fields the array of screwballs thrown in her direction, from a charmingly dyslexic President to Dan Bechtel, the sinister attorney general. Martin Thompson gets a workout in a similar outfield position, in cameos varying from a macho retired general to a backwoods good ol' boy who's not about to let a little thing like war interrupt huntin' season.
Brendan Hughes runs these thoroughbreds through their paces, pausing only for us all to look at an absolutely empty screen--nighttime footage, we're assured, of the skies above an undisclosed battle zone.
So what makes this production seem much longer than its hour-long running time? The lack of new material (after a 2003 script date), or the lack of new insights?
I'd have to say the latter. Playwright Gip Hoppe dutifully trots out--and skewers--the "known knowns," the belligerent Secretaries and government operatives, the mid-war shopping sprees and jingoistic country jingles. Sycophantic news reporters and "integrated" coverage--the impact of the war on diet, exercise and entertainment--all go under the same knife.
If a comedian couldn't hit the broad sides of these collective barns, they'd be well advised to keep the day job. But in part we look to satire, and to theater, to surprise or refresh us; to give a different, unexpected spin or insight to a circumstance we already know. Given the increase in daily and weekly shows featuring political comedy, that's a very tall order at this point.
If the subject isn't exhausted by now, we are--as a nation as well as a people of conscience. We laugh, more than occasionally, at the vapidity or the malice of the reflected image on this stage. Then we say, "We know, already. We know."
In last week's Best Bets, we alerted you to a run on tickets for both hands theatre's final weekend of piece~meal, a multiphonic metaphor about how people give--and lose--parts of themselves in ill-advised exchange. Two shows are left: Thursday and Friday night at Manbites Dog.
There's just enough room left to direct audiences to another resurrection in the works--Open Door Theater's triumphant return to the regional stage in The Eight Reindeer Monologues at Durham's Common Ground Theatre. The comedy, which the group performed three years ago, shares a bill with Joe Brack's solo performance of David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries . With strong acting on both halves of the bill, catch it before it closes this weekend.
E-mail Byron Woods at firstname.lastname@example.org.