NEW YORK — What if your whole career was built on a lie, and you had to keep inventing new lies almost daily to sustain your momentum? That's the stressful situation faced by overly ambitious, young New York Times reporter Jay Bennett, in Gabe McKinley's stylish new play "CQ/CX."
Based on the true story of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal at the Times in 2003, the Atlantic Theater Company's dynamic, intelligent production opened Wednesday night off-Broadway at The Peter Norton Space.
McKinley is a former news assistant at the Times who overlapped with Blair's tenure over five years there, and his hands-on experience and ability to write forceful, crackling dialogue give the play an authentic air.
Tony Award-nominated David Leveaux, who recently directed Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" on Broadway, keeps up a fast pace, yet lets the telling drama of each scene play out, sometimes non-verbally. A cacophony of ringing phones, newsroom loudspeaker and shouting editors energizes scenes where the staff is on deadline, while quieter scenes occur in places like privileged offices lined with photos of Pulitzer Prize-winners, the now-quaint "smoking room," or a bar frequented by the reporters.
Kobi Libii gives an engaging portrayal of Bennett, at first eager and conscientious, as the young black man joins the Times with the 1998 intern class. His editor on the Metro desk, Ben (given a principled, no-nonsense presence by Tim Hopper) notices sloppiness with regard to detail almost immediately and offers important advice about factual writing. "Did you CQ it?" he asks Jay using a journalism shorthand, then explains, "Cadit Quaestio. The question falls. The facts have been checked." He also reminds Jay that "We are writing the first draft of history, respect that."
But Jay is impatient for success, and his work, while talented, often requires CX (correction), although he expresses admiration for old-school journalism. "I like those old ways. Hounding. Getting the story. Work hard, play hard," he recites to Frank, (a very effective Larry Bryggman), a veteran newsman with 43 years at the Times who feels he's been put out to pasture.
Soon Jay is plagiarizing others' work on the Internet, fabricating quotes and using his cellphone and laptop to pretend he's reporting from major story locations, all without leaving his Brooklyn apartment. Increasing use of cocaine and alcohol don't help his rationality.
Arliss Howard is suave and manipulative, in full-blown Southern gentleman mode, as newly promoted executive editor Hal. His deputy and Jay's mentor, Gerald, is played with well-honed repressed anger by an imposing Peter Jay Fernandez. One of the first black men to reach top management levels at the newspaper, Gerald has no idea what Jay is really up to. Racial tension will explode in a recriminatory scene between Hal and Gerald after Jay's house of cards collapses, and Jay will use race as a shield against his detractors. (Hal and Gerald are based on real-life former Times editors Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd.)
David Pittu wears an air of idealistic pride as the Times' publisher, called only Junior, (based on real-life Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr.,) whose family has run the paper for generations. The cast is rounded out by Steve Rosen and Shelia Tapia, capably enacting a couple of fellow interns who become Jay's friends and portray the honest route to journalistic success that he might have taken.
David Rockwell's flexible set flashes with well-chosen projections of actual Times headlines, while sliding panels that change color to denote different locations, (a seductive red for the bar, for instance) echo the Renzo Piano-designed horizontal rods on the Times' real-life new skyscraper. The newsroom background is all gray, a nod to the paper's nickname, "the Gray Lady," which Hal claims is because of "the gray writing. Dull and lifeless."
The hubris, the competition, deadline pressures and political scheming by senior editors all make for compelling drama, as McKinley builds to the inevitable discovery of Jay's deception, which taints the newspaper's reputation and causes collateral damage to those who championed him.
McKinley provides an affecting story of a man who became a self-destructive machine, while Jay's motivation for continually lying remains ambiguous, almost as if he didn't really understand it himself.
"CQ/CX" is in an extended run through March 11.