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A story in a newspaper and a story onstage are two different things. A newspaper reports the facts—at least, one hopes it does—and only occasionally takes an in-depth look behind them. When a play takes up facts, it’s supposed to dramatize them—meaning not only that we watch while, seemingly, the facts occur to the people involved, but also that we end by getting a deeper understanding of how and why these facts have occurred. When Henry James reviewed Hedda Gabler, he wrote, tellingly, that Ibsen’s plays were about “the individual caught in the fact.”
Gabe McKinley’s CQ/CX (Peter Norton Space), staged with smart efficiency by David Leveaux for Atlantic Theater, presents the facts of a famous mess that occurred at The New York Times nine years ago, when a young reporter named Jayson Blair was caught filing stories of questionable accuracy, containing sentences that sometimes closely paralleled those in stories filed earlier by other reporters. The case was exceptionally touchy because Blair was African American. Race cards and other wild cards were played on all sides, and nobody particularly enjoyed the game, except for the small class of kibitzers who like watching large newspapers squirm.
McKinley lays out the story tidily, in neat, crisp dialogue and in straightforward sequence, shifting focus from top execs to harried news-desk jockeys to trembling interns as needed for the next bit of narrative. Names have been changed or suppressed, but the identities are clear enough for those in the know to chuckle over the accuracy of the characterizations provided by Leveaux’s largely excellent cast. The four best performances provide major enhancement: Tim Hopper as a tense, sour-mouthed Metro editor; Arliss Howard as a smiley Southerner with a drawl that drips like Spanish moss; Peter Jay Fernandez as a pioneering black staffer, his eyes bleak with anticipated defeat; and the infallible Larry Bryggman as an aged newshound on his way to the scrap heap.
The first-rate acting, like the lucid wordsmithing and the bustle of Leveaux’s staging, animate the story but never deepen it. The efficient telling offers no clue to the central character’s inner life, leaving the mystery of how Jayson Blair came to do what he did (and why he imagined he could get away with it) exactly as puzzling as when the young reporter became the news story and the Times ate crow back in 2003. Quite unintentionally, McKinley has dramatized for theatergoers the difference between old plays, which sometimes stay alive, and old news, which notoriously doesn’t.