Thursday, February 16, 2012

CQ/CX: Not Quite There

CQ/CX presents a great story to be brought to the New York stage but director David Leveaux and playwright, Gabe McKinley, did not quite get a handle on the material.  A thinly veiled fictional adaptation of the events of the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times, CQ/CX involves the rise of a young journalist Jay Bennett (Kobi Libii) and how he succeeded at the New York Times until eventually being caught plagiarizing other reporters.  Jay, an African-American college student from Maryland, starts off as a promising young reporter with two other young fellows, Monica (Sheila Tapia) and Jacob (Steve Rosen), in an internship program.  Jay is sometimes mentored by a senior African-American editor, Gerald (Peter Jay Fernandez).  He impresses his superiors including fastidious Metro desk editor Ben (Tim Hopper).  The paper is going through a transition as Junior (David Pittu) takes the reins of the paper from his father.  He installs a new editor, Hal (Arliss Howard) who hopes to shake things up.  The shifts in senior management allow for Jay to exploit his opportunity and eventually bring the paper to its embarrassing mea culpa.

The story is full of great opportunities to delve into the interactions between these two generations of reporters, the changes afoot in the newspaper business, and the racial issues long-plaguing the New York Times.  And the play does that, but by focusing on recreating the verisimilitude of the New York Times newsroom and it's culture, somehow real drama and character development got lost in the shuffle.  An uneven cast did not help matters.  The characters spent so much time explaining that they never got to be real fully-developed people.  There was so much about what it means to be a reporter, and a reporter for the Times, and what the Times means to people.  But I just wanted to know who these people were because it is Bennett's personal betrayal of these people that is the core of the drama.

Midway through I thought what if someone more experienced like David Lindsay-Abaire had taken a stab at this play.  One of the impressive feats of his recent play Good People, was that he found a delicate way to convey class issues in America and did so with humor and real pathos.  Here, Gabe McKinley did not have such a delicate hand.  The play was practically without humor.  Not that it should be a funny play, but it seemed as if every line was drenched in the weight of outrageous self-importance and Biblical-level seriousness of purpose such that the humanity of the characters was utterly lost.  It's hard to do a play about the Times without that sense of self-importance to be present--and the play does poke fun at it a bit.  But they stopped being dramatic characters under the weight of this dialogue.

Loved the David Rockwell set even if you can't really see it here
Even if the play itself did not always find the humanity in the characters, some of the actors did.  Larry Bryggman, as a disheveled lifer at the paper, took a small role and breathed specificity and truth into it.  David Pittu, as the crown prince to the family business, did a great job of finding the desperate child in his character longing for approval and lacking backbone.  For the young reporters, Steve Rosen was faneffingtastic as Jacob.  It's a small role but he made it specific, funny and believable.  He gave the lines color and gave you the sense that this character was flesh and soul.  I'm keeping my eye out for him in future things.  He was one of the best things about the whole show.  I'm now a big fan.

Sadly, I wish I could say the same about Kobi Libii's turn as Jay.  Since so much of the play depends on him, it's hard to recommend the play with him in this role.  Every time he was on stage I felt the energy of the show drop.  He's playing the character to be irritating, charmless,and weaselly.  Even before his downfall, you need to believe people would be his friend, would be impressed by his work, and believe he had a future.  With this performance, I struggled with all those things.  Obviously the parallels between Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass have been made, and are even are made in this play.  But I thought the film Shattered Glass did a great job with at least this part of the character journey--Stephen Glass is likable (adorkable really) and his downfall feels hard on both him and those who believed in him.  Bennett is a challenging role to write and play because he becomes a betrayer and destroyer.  But I really believe you have to start out liking him so that you feel that betrayal and destruction as his friends and colleagues did.

The set design by David Rockwell was fantastic.  I loved the use of text, projections, and moving walls to define the space.  Leveaux tried to keep the energy moving from scene to scene but it somehow felt more stilted than it should have. A great subject but something was lost in the execution.

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