You would think, then, that Gabe McKinley's new play about this controversy, CQ/CX, which the Atlantic Theater Company is presenting at Peter Norton Space, would be a top-to-bottom lean-forward thriller. But you would be wrong. It's many things — informative, well directed (by David Leveaux), well designed, and reasonably well acted — but exciting it is not.
One can't help but wonder if this is because McKinley was too close to it all. A news assistant at the time Blair was making his name and making up things, McKinley was undoubtedly near enough to the action and its anti-hero to become intrigued and affected by the experience. But his play is so lacking in conclusions, details, and, well, drama, that it's not clear how close he actually was, or how close he wanted to be. CQ/CX is so determined to treat everyone involved with respect, and borderline fawning admiration, that it fails to make its points with any piercing precision. If you've read the astonishing 7,200-word Times chronicle about the affair, "Correcting the Record," you will discover nothing new in McKinley's play; in fact, the newspaper version is in every way more vivid, tense, and unpredictable.
This isn't just because it uses the real names that McKinley doesn't; the playwright changes Blair to Jay Bennett (a role played by Kobi Libii), Executive Editor Howell Raines to Hal Martin (Arliss Howard), Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. to simply Junior (David Pittu), and created two composite characters, one (Ben, played by Tim Hopper) that fuses together Blair's disapproving editors and one (Gerald, played by Peter Jay Fernandez) encompassing the folks who kept pushing their charge further up the ladder (and, to lend weight to the racial subplot, is black). This was, for better or worse, to be expected. But the vacant, cipher-like nature of Jay is the key thing McKinley should have corrected but didn't.
We see Jay struggling over copy and pondering his piling-up corrections, we see him begin to exercise more "creative" writing, we see him socialize with his on-the-rise friends Jacob (Steve Rosen) and Monica (Sheila Tapia). But we don't see inside him. Aside from one private conversation with Gerald, the impact of the Times' race policies barely plays role, yet is somehow eventually inflated into a major concern. Worse, we're given too little information about Jay's background and personality to derive other motives, and the second act (set after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, when the biggest problems started) is so sketchily written that we learn nothing new. At its climax, when Jacob begs Jay to explain himself, the only answer McKinley bothers providing is: "You'll have to buy the book."
Even if the real Blair reacted essentially the same way with his memoir, Burning Down My Masters' House, it's a deeply unsatisfying wrap-up for such a significant chunk of the play. Far more involving is the Junior-Hal-Gerald trio that provides the higher-elevation element to this Upstairs, Downstairs saga. As the three men try to deny problems, then are forced to embrace them, and then trudge through the devastating aftermath, you see exactly what was at stake for this institution, and what the larger implications were. You get a different perspective with the final character, an 40-year veteran Timesman named Frank (Larry Bryggman), who represents the "old ways" that are dying off in the new age. The matter of what the Times was in the process of losing is a fascinating facet of the story that's never before been explored.
But it is only half the story, and despite intricate acting from Pittu (all business in the first act and all tragedy in the second), the matter-of-fact Howard, the walking-on-glass Fernandez, and the charmingly neurotic Bryggman, it's not enough. Libii is adequate as Jay, likeable on the surface but in no way enriching his hollow shell of a role. Rosen and Tapia are both delightful, but underused as Jay's undersung victims. The most successful portrayal comes from Hopper, whose Ben acts as a Cassandra-like sage that predicts the ruin to come but whose warnings fall upon deaf ears. (It's more than a little telling that, after a magnetic pre-intermission showing, Hopper has some three lines in Act II.)
Leveaux deserves plentiful kudos for bringing out every drop of tension in the script with a kinetic, pulsating staging that thrusts you between potentially staid newsroom settings, nondescript dive bars, and hotel rooms at jet speed. David Rockwell's crisp mod set designs, Jess Goldstein's broken-down business costumes, Ben Stanton's throbbing lights, David Van Tieghem's swirling sound, and especially Peter Nigrini and C. Andrew Bauer's constantly moving projections make this an outstanding play to look at. If only more of it sank in beyond your eyes.
In case you were wondering, the title derives from two pieces of journalistic shorthand: the former deployed when someone questions a writer's fact, the latter when a correction is required. With CQ/CX, you never feel that the facts are in error. But their presentation deserves a broadsheet-width CX.