Theater Review: New Rep’s “Muckrakers” — Not Messy Enough

Zayd Dohrn’s slightly predictable Muckrakers offers some satisfying twists and turns as it moves toward the inevitable.

Muckrakers by Zayd Dohrn. Directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary. Staged by New Repertory Theatre as part of the Next Rep Black Box Festival, in the Black Box Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through Feb. 1.


Esme Allen and Lewis D. Wheeler in the New Repertory Theatre production of “Muckrakers.” Photo: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures.

By Terry Byrne

Some of the best stories have endings we can see coming a mile away, so the thrill lies in discovering how we’ll get there. Zayd Dohrn’s slightly predictable one-act Muckraker offers some satisfying twists and turns as it moves toward the inevitable, but his characters are so two-dimensional that it’s difficult to sympathize with either one of them.

The action takes place in the one-room apartment of 25-year-old Mira (Esme Allen), an activist who runs an “online agitprop news source.” Her organization, which champions total openness and accountability, hosted a famous British journalist named Stephen (Lewis D. Wheeler) to talk about his role in exposing military secrets given to him by a young serviceman named Andy Stanton. Mira’s group doesn’t have a budget to pay for a hotel room and so, after the reception, she has offered the journalist a bed for the night.

Stephen is happy to receive the invitation, which he assumes includes sex with Mira, while she is determined to wrangle more secrets out of Stephen. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game that pits the older journalist, who has a healthy respect for nuance and an acute awareness of consequences, against an idealistic young woman determined to achieve her goal at any cost.

What makes this set-up interesting is that the debate these two engage in reflects many of responses to the recent leaks of military documents by both Edward Snowden in 2013 and Chelsea Manning in 2010. The fictional character of Andy Stanton, who languishes in military prison because Stephen has published the documents Andy had access to, mirrors almost exactly the relationship between Manning and WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange. The parallels provide Dohrn with the opportunity to explore issues of personal privacy in the public sphere, the debate over the whistleblower as patriot or traitor, and the increasingly porous boundary between gossip and openness.

Director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary keeps her actors pacing around the modest apartment (in which every inch of wall space is plastered with political posters, thanks to designer Alexander Grover). The tension builds as much from this edgy sense of caged animals testing the limits of their space as it does from Dohrn’s script. Allen is perfectly nonchalant as Mira, whose somewhat off-putting sense of self-righteousness is at the service of an unflinching focus on her own agenda. But the plot twist Dohrn inserts in order to reveal her frailty comes too late to provide any complexity to her character. When Mira agrees that the typeface on her website is amateurish, the woman seems shallower than ever. She is not someone we can care much about.

Wheeler gives Stephen a certain charm, but Dohrn is determined to present him as a pompous boor. The dramatist tries to complicate Stephen by having the character show concern about Andy, who we learn has just attempted suicide. But his concern for his own safety trumps everything else. His comment that “people are messy; I like it that way,” comes across as an excuse rather evidence that he is grappling with the complexities of his actions.

It’s too easy to tie Dohrn’s fascination with privacy versus disclosure to his own family upbringing, but the first line of bio in the program states that he was “born underground.” It only takes a 30-second Google search to learn he is the son of ’60s activists and leaders of the Weather Underground and Students for a Democratic Society Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. The issue of personal privacy versus public scrutiny clearly hits home in terms of current headlines, but Muckrakers is content to start a conversation about the subject rather than to give us believable characters who are “messy” enough to take us beneath the tabloid surface.

Terry Byrne has been writing about the arts for nearly two decades. She has an MFA in Playwriting from Boston University and is a Resident Scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center.

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