Theater Review: “Muckrakers” — Too Close to the News

In a novel spin on a very old theatrical situation, paranoia rather than lust drives the one-night stand in “Muckrakers.”

Muckrakers by Zayd Dohrn. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli. Staged by the Barrington Stage Company in the St. Germain Stage at the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Pittsfield, MA, through July 6.

By Helen Epstein

Kahan James and Kate Rogal in BSC’s “Muckrakers.” Photo: Kevin Sprague.

If relevance were the only essential criterion for contemporary drama, you could not ask more from Muckrakers. I saw Zayd Dorhn’s new play about stealing secrets on the afternoon that former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden was en route to Moscow with a little help from Julian Assange’s advisor, WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison.

What’s a muckraker in the digital age? The original muckrakers of the 1900s were investigative journalists like Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair who, often donning disguises, did their undercover investigations on site and published their work in mass-market magazines. They sometimes blew the whistle on major industries in the service of the public good and often were responsible for prompting political movements or new laws. Their reporting was edited by seasoned journalists who were part of a publishing structure that included feedback from their subjects and readers.

Twenty-first-century muckrakers, on the other hand, seem more often than not to be mavericks, making their reportorial decisions alone, consulting their computers rather than an editor. Internet chat rooms, cell phones, and webcams come off as inanimate but important cast members in this hot new two-hander having its world premiere at Barrington Stage.

Zayd Dohrn, whose name immediately rings a distant bell, is an established playwright who has written a dozen scripts. He is also a son of former members of the Weather Underground Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, and it’s hard not to infer that Muckrakers draws not only on current events but on the stories of his parents and their friends. The language of the contemporary American Left—its tropes and style and habits—all ring true in the play. Less persuasive is the situation: the sometimes amusing, sometimes trite generational and cultural clash between Stephen, a charismatic, 40-year-old, British politico, and Mira, a self-righteous, 26-year-old, American woman over the course of a boozy, druggy one-night stand.

As the play opens, the evening’s patronizing, casually sexist political hero (Kahan James) has just received a journalism award in New York. In the morning, he will resume his lecture tour: “Berlin, then Paris, Johannesburg and the Hague.” Mira (Kate Rogal) whose organization has co-sponsored the evening, is expecting sex but doesn’t see herself as a groupie. New York hotels are outrageously expensive, she explains, and since there was no budget for one, she has offered home hospitality.

Dressed in evening clothes, Stephen with a rooksack on his back, they stagger into Mira’s tiny apartment and collapse onto the Aerobed she has blown up for her guest. Set designer Brian Prather has created a careful facsimile of a Brooklyn studio (its sole window faces a brick wall), suitably crammed with kitchenette, couch, cinder block bookshelves, an assortment of political fliers and that crucial prop—a large, open Apple laptop.

In a novel spin on a very old theatrical situation, paranoia rather than lust drives this one-night stand. The sexual banter is repeatedly interrupted by checks of windows and doors and nether sides of surfaces for possible recording devices. In the midst of making passes at Mira, Stephen subjects her to a pat-down quite like the ones we are routinely subjected to at airports these days—a bit of stage business that is hilarious in its ambiguities. The only thing Stephen doesn’t (as Snowden reportedly did) do is insist on putting their cell phones in the refrigerator.

There’s not much erotic charge between Stephen and Mira. We believe that he needs to get drunk in order to have sex with her, and she seems more interested in information than in coupling. They make a few gestures at getting to know one another, make fun of each other’s English, debate the ethics of outing and what constitutes privacy, and are repeatedly interrupted by the ringing of Stephen’s cell phone.

Though Mira is not as alienated as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, she is a little weird and has plenty of tattoos—enough to make Stephen feel that he’s massaging a “petting zoo” when he gives her a back rub. She’s also bi-sexual, keeps condoms in her drawer, and understands how to take apart a computer.

Kahan James and Kate Rogal in BSC’s MUCKRAKERS. Photo: Kevin Sprague.

The trouble for me was that even with all these snazzy, up-to-date, details, literate dialogue, and a simulated premature ejaculation onstage, Dohrn’s muckrakers engaged neither my interest nor sympathy. Although their interaction sometimes made me laugh, more often it left me indifferent. Stephen and Mira seemed primarily engaged in an intellectual exercise inspired by the Assange Affair. Their engagement with each other didn’t seem credible on either a sexual or emotional level. Neither came across to me as a full-fledged character.

Was it the direction, the acting, the script, or some combination of the three? I couldn’t tell. Perhaps the playwright was so concerned with crafting a well-turned plot that he neglected to focus on character development. While Kahan James, as Stephen, became more believable over the course of the play, Kate Rogal’s Mira remained mired in stock lines, gestures, and facial expressions reminiscent of a sitcom.

Director Giovanna Sardelli kept the twists and turns of the story clear and the pace brisk. But she was unable to elicit much interpersonal emotional punch from her actors. My sense is that this potentially rich play needs more distance from the news and a bit more dramaturgical work on the part of the playwright.

Helen Epstein is the author of Joe Papp: An American Life and the co-publisher of Plunkett Lake Press eBooks of Non-Fiction.

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