Sunday, March 7, 2010

Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers

Was it mere synchronicity that Catherine and I stayed up late a few nights ago watching the last half of All the President's Men again for the I-don't-know-how-many-th time? Of course, but I think it may also have affected our experience a bit at the New York Theatre Workshop's production of Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers. Not that the play isn't enjoyable—it is; but the text here, by Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons, doesn't have the sense of immediacy that make Alan J. Pakula's film so timeless. While the personal stakes for the staff of The Washington Post and owner Katherine Graham in their publication of the Pentagon Papers were incredibly high and the history is absolutely fascinating—I knew The New York Times' role in the events but almost nothing about the Post's—the two-dimensional quality to this production keep it from being entirely successful.

To be fair, this lack of dimension is entirely intentional: Top Secret is a radio play performed live, with actors onstage creating foley sound effects. And a very good radio play it is, too: the original sound design by Lindsay Jones serves the conceit exceptionally well. But this device also allows us to distance ourselves from the characters and events that we are watching: we're supposed to see the actors as actors, reading into microphones from scripts they hold in their hands (although, to everyone's credit, a lot of the key dialogue is clearly memorized). No matter how strong the performances—and the performances are all uniformly strong—there is an inherent disconnect that makes the piece more like a documentary than events that we are witnessing unfold before us.

The script may also suffer from so much of it having been taken from personal memoirs, or at least frequently sounding as though it was. Some of Katherine Graham's narrations, especially, do little more than provide a writer-ly device to bridge the gaps between dialogue scenes. It's a shame, to0, because we get occasional hints at her personal "coming of age in the newspaper industry" story that might have been a wonderful framing device for the piece; instead, she merely offers us a "looking back on it all now" perspective that is less powerful and reinforces our detachment from what we are watching. I must say, however, that Kathryn Meisle has created a fully-realized and incredibly engaging character, in spite of these limitations.

Peter Strauss gives an excellent performance as Post editor Ben Bradlee, completely and naturally capturing Bradlee's mannerisms, style of speaking and humor. Larry Bryggman, James Gleason and Matt McGrath have a wonderful scene as the three reporters who are given less than a day to pour through the 4,000 pages of reports to find a story for the Post to publish (the Times had 3 months to come up with their series). And Jack Gilpin does a very nice job as the paper's defense attorney, Bryan Kelly. Director John Rubinstein keeps the pace moving pretty well; I wish it could have been a 90-minute, no intermission production (in fact, I wish every production I see could be that), but I think that would require text editing more than anything else.

The play is at it's most engaging in the trial scene that dominates Act II. The authors have done a very good job of editing down the transcripts from the hearing where Kelly defends the Post against the government's charges that publishing the texts runs counter to our national security interests into a series of swiftly moving and tightly constructed scenes. If the rest of the piece matched that energy and tension, it might have been a powerful drama. Instead, it's a really nice, big spoonful of sugar that helps the history lesson go down.

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