For better or worse -- but mostly for better -- we're living in the age of the stage documentary. It's been pelting us like a hailstorm ever since Anna Deavere Smith introduced Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities, which examined an inflammatory New York City inter-racial incident.
By now, the list is long -- featuring, prominently, Smith's recent Let Me Down Easy about the healthcare issue and a series of David Hare pieces, including his Israeli-Palestinian monologue, Via Dolorosa, and his investigative look at the current financial crisis, The Power of Yes. In the past, we've had The Exonerated and Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom. Coming our way from London is Lucy Prebble's Enron. And that's hardly the entire roster.
Although billed as plays, these theatrical entries aren't that. They're news reports outfitted with theatrical accoutrements -- with actors often impersonating famous or near-famous newsmakers, with sets and often with projections not far removed from PowerPoint presentations.
The intent behind these stage documentaries is to inform audiences on the truth behind significant events while appearing to be more entertaining than actual newsroom accounts. Though they've not plays, then, they nonetheless have a place alongside actual dramatizations, such as the 1976 film, All the President's Men.
The latest of them -- just opened at the New York Theater Workshop after its development at Susan Albert Loewenberg's L. A. Theatre Works and its touring the country in 2007 -- is the compelling Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, billed not simply as a play but as "a radio play." This, indeed, is how it's presented, under Jon Rubinstein's sleek direction -- with the actors holding scripts (though they've memorized their lines), an upstage table where two cast members take turns supplying the sound effects of doors shutting and drinks poured and the like. Never mind that these Foley-artist effects are selective and that occasionally actors are in costume (a judge wears robes, military men are in uniform), which they wouldn't be during a radio transmission. These are forgivable inconsistencies.
More cogent is the, uh, play's purpose, as Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aaron have cobbled it together and taken, by their admission, certain acceptable conflating liberties for dramatic purposes. Actually, it's more accurate to relay the play's dual purposes. On one hand, it's an occasion to dramatize damning portions of the infamous Pentagon Papers -- as surreptitiously handed by Daniel Ellsberg to the New York Times's Neil Sheehan several years after the document was compiled. On the other hand, it's the more pressing story of how The Washington Post, under the command of publisher Katharine Graham (Kathryn Meisle) and editor Ben Bradlee (Peter Strauss), sought successfully to obtain a copy of the purloined artifact and to publish its contents after The New York Times had been stopped by court order.
Throughout the acquisition of the Papers and the decision to publish excerpts, while knowing the likelihood of a lawsuit in line with the Times's injunction, and the subsequent actual court case defended by New York lawyer Brian Kelly (Jack Gilpin), jarring revelations crop up. That's if listening in on Richard Nixon (Larry Pine), John Mitchell (Larry Bryggman) and H. R. Haldeman (Gilpin) wax scatological and anti-Semitic while discussing cover-ups continues to have shock-ability.
But among all these potent nuggets -- which involve a court case won as the direct result of the astonishing memory of Post reporter George Wilson (Matt McGrath) -- perhaps the most unexpected is what emerges about Bradlee's determination to get his hands on the Pentagon Papers and to publish as much of it as he and staff warranted vital for readers' enlightenment. This was an instance -- undoubtedly one of the land's most explosive -- of national security versus the voter's right to know. Sensitive to national security, of course, Bradlee as a newsman would be -- and was -- likely to stand strongly for the right to know.
That, however, was not -- as expressed in Top Secret -- his impetus. Uh-uh, What motivated him was the humiliation of being scooped by The New York Times on what was essentially a Washington story. He was going to find a way to right the imbalance, and he did. In other words, in his campaign there's the element of "boys with their toys." Intriguingly, that's not too far removed from the king-of-the-mountain games being played by Nixon and his coterie in the Oval Office. And just maybe those apparently unavoidable male inclinations explain why the situations leading to the Pentagon Papers disclosures served in no way as a deterrent in, say, the George W. Bush administration, where men at their power maneuvers thought little or nothing of lying as a means to justify their long-planned ends.
Nevertheless, Top Secret remains shot through with information the concerned citizen doesn't want to be without. It's the kind of important theater we need.