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Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus.

As far as play-propelling questions go, "What will we put on the front page tomorrow?" ranks right up there on the nail-biting scale with "What do you want for dinner?" So it's not especially shocking that Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers - A Radio Play, which is obsessed with just that question (the first one, that is), is about as zesty as leftover tuna casserole. And if you find your eyelids drooping during this new production at New York Theatre Workshop, don't blame any turkey you might have eaten at your pre-show repast - the culprit is undoubtedly tryptophan of a marginally more theatrical kind.

Newsroom politicking, after all, is not inherently engrossing; even if the topic at hand is whether to publish excerpts from a collection of thousands of pages of documents the American government has suppressed to cover up its involvement in Vietnam. In their model for the journalism-crime genre, The Front Page, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur addressed it only obliquely. Here, playwrights Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons tackle it head-on, working from real documents and news reports. But their combining the default dullness of story meetings with an ears-only presentation format (which requires sound effects to emerge from a foley artist–manned table and the actors to purr their lines from behind microphones) severs most immediate avenues to an invigorating dramatic evening.

Top Secret, then, becomes less about the 1971 tug-of-war between the Washington Post and the Nixon administration and more about the stage show's war with itself. For the first act, during which the various editors, reporters, lawyers, and the publisher grapple with whether to follow in the New York Times's potentially litigious footsteps, the conflict isn't even a draw. The amount of enjoyment you'll derive from their largely interior struggles with their public charge and their private morality is directly related to your opinion of the Vietnam War, Nixon and his cohorts, and the concept of journalistic responsibility. If, like most people, you go to the theatre to escape thinking of such things, you may be in trouble.

The second act is a notable improvement, focusing on the trial between the Feds and the Post that would be too silly to believe if it hadn't actually happened. The government's attempts to keep public documents under wraps purely for purposes of controlling the dissemination of information would even more comical than it is (which is saying something) were it not so scary. The denouement both examines the Nixonites' behavior with regard to the Pentagon Papers as an indicator of a larger problem yet to come and questions where news organizations can and should draw the line in informing the public (an issue, sadly, still of painful relevance today). This lengthy post-trial scene turns on the line "You can't really gain freedom, you can only lose it" (another haunting message for our times), and by directly exploring its myriad implications for those on both sides of the question the show becomes the trenchant documentary it longs to be from the get-go.

But, at least onstage, that pay-off isn't sufficient support for the preceding two hours. On radio, which is where the piece premiered in 1990, the old-fashionedness of the medium reflecting the antiquated views of the government and forcing attention onto exactly what it wanted to hide - words - might well have been riveting. In a theater, despite game direction from John Rubinstein, it's too sedate and staid, looking less like an artistic choice than an attempt to retain large swaths of budget money that needn't be expended on sets (they're credited to David Lander, who also designed the lights, but are largely nonexistent), despite being a coproduction of three theatre companies (the others being L.A. Theatre Works and Affinity Collaborative Theater).

This isn't to say the performers can't or don't have fun with their roles. Larry Bryggman is a hoot as milquetoast, try-anything government operative; Jack Gilpin delightfully forceful as the honor-bound Post counsel; and Kathryn Meisle drily droll as Post publisher Katharine Graham. Larry Pine's Richard Nixon and Peter van Norden's Henry Kissinger are adroit enough impressions to earn a genuine laugh or two. And Diane Adair and Russell Loder do admirable work as the onstage sound engineers.

It's worth noting that most of their effects are limited to the clinking of glasses and the rustling of papers - two sounds that, however common they may be in any office, do get tiring given their nearly constant repetition here. On radio, those sounds may be atmospheric; here, they're white-noise mood-setters that often draw attention away from the dialogue you ought to be listening to. Given the first act's iffiness, this isn't a new experience. But when you must collect yourself at the climax of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, don't be surprised if at last doing so seems even harder than deciding what you want to have for dinner.

Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers
Through March 28
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
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