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Theatre in Review: Ink (Manhttan Theatre Club/Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)

Rana Roy, Jonny Lee Miller. Photo: Joan Marcus.

As the producers of the Marvel films have taught us, heroes and villains alike need their origin stories: In Ink, the playwright James Graham performs this valuable service for Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media mogul whose bequests to this nation are the tawdry New York Post and Fox News, that toxic stew of right-wing nonsense, which also functions as the Trump Administration's Ministry of Disinformation. Long before Murdoch began polluting the American political environment, however, he was known for his Australian newspaper enterprise -- which, in the 1950s and '60s, might as well have been on Pluto, for all the influence it exerted in the wider world. Ink picks up Murdoch's story in 1969, when he invaded London's Fleet Street and -- according to Graham -- invented the modern tabloid, a mishmash of screaming headlines, celebrity tittle-tattle, political sex scandals, cheesy contests, and topless page-three girls. From there, Ink argues, you can draw a direct line to all that is coarse and dishonest in today's media.

At least in the first act, Ink has a tabloid verve of its own. Staged like a musical by Rupert Goold -- Adam Cork's sound design makes good use of period pop tunes like Canned Heat's "Let's Work Together" and The Pipkins' "Gimme Dat Ding" -- it begins with Murdoch's purchase of The Sun, an underperforming property for which he has great expectations. He also recruits Larry Lamb, once a player in the London scene, now the exiled Northern editor of the Daily Mail -- to turn his new property into a fun, sexy read that will prove irresistible to the lower classes. It's a tall order: The Sun, Larry notes, is "a laughingstock on the street, a stuck-up broadsheet that has never once made a profit. It's selling less than, what, 850,000?" "800 and falling," Murdoch notes. Larry, driven by resentments and unfulfilled ambitions, takes the bait; with an inadequate budget and no time for second thoughts, he pulls together a ragtag collection of hacks, has-beens, and lady astrologists, in the process concocting a populist formula of sex, celebrities, and sports, designed to tweak the tweedy journalistic establishment. It's a high-calorie, low-nutrition diet of infotainment, and it proves to be irresistible. Instead of an interview with Prime Minister Ted Heath, a Sun reporter is dispatched to interview the bandleader Ted Heath, to get his views on the state of the nation. After all, isn't the bandleader more amusing? A multipage spread about the Rolling Stones in their Hollywood pad might not be breaking news, but the scantily clad lovelies in the photos are their own justification. The giveaways include "Knickers Week," in which lucky readers are shipped tins of ladies' underwear sprayed with Chanel No. 5. Journalism? No, but the readers love it. Murdoch -- who would publish a seed catalogue if it turned a profit -- dares Larry to outstrip the Daily Mail's sales in a year, a seemingly impossible goal until the numbers start climbing exponentially.

Graham cleverly makes us complicit in the makeover of The Sun, inviting us to look on in amusement as Larry and his growing cohort stalk Bunny Christie's fabulous set - an art-installation pileup of beaten-up office furniture -- cooking up one outrageous gambit after another, tracked by Neil Austin's sweeping light cues and accompanied by the gaudy vocals of a Shirley Bassey-style pop singer. Graham's cast brings to life this crew of journalistic insurgents in all their seedy glory. Bertie Carvel, who created the role of Murdoch at London's Almeida Theatre and in the West End, is an ideal provocateur: Shunning the spotlight, he adopts a stance suggesting that, at any moment, his frame will fold in two, his voice issuing reedy clarinet tones dismissive of everything upper-class. In contrast, Jonny Lee Miller's furious, harsh-voiced Larry is a tsunami of energy, forever driving his merry band to produce new reader-grabbing sensations. Theirs is less less a Faustian bargain than a devilish tag team: The two egg each other on, driving The Sun to keep on shattering norms. The lively supporting cast includes David Wilson Barnes as Larry's initially reluctant right-hand man; Bill Buell as a sports editor whose skills stop at reporting the soccer scores; Andrew Durand as the hapless, inexperienced staff photographer with a knack for soft-core girlie shots; Michael Siberry as Larry's mentor, the horrified voice of the establishment; Robert Stanton as the overly fastidious layout expert, a fish out of water with this low-down bunch ("I quite enjoy adapting the lesser-known works of Emile Zola from French into English"); and Tara Summers as the sunny, candid women's page editor, who dares to instruct her male colleagues in the facts of female masturbation. The script is packed with incidents that seem like uncanny prophecies of things to come. As if anticipating today's blog culture, Murdoch predicts that readers will call in with stories, saying, "Isn't that the real end point of the revolution? When they're producing their own content themselves? That's when we know they're really getting what they want." If you think Fox News' lurid coverage of the current immigrant crisis is something new, consider the scene in which a skeptical television interviewer interrogates Murdoch, noting that "so much of your paper seemingly enjoys stoking suspicion towards migrant communities." (Murdoch smoothly replies that his readers are "proud of the positive merits of England and all things English.") The interviewer, springing a trap, asks, "Remind me, which part of England were you born in again?"

After the galvanic beginning, Ink runs into a spot of structural trouble in its second act, when Larry's overreaching begins to have serious consequences. The act focuses on two telling incidents. The first is the kidnapping of Muriel McKay, wife of Sir Alick, Murdoch's deputy chairman; against all advice, Larry covers the event aggressively, turning it into the crime of the year, with devastating results; Graham makes a solid point here, but too much of the story happens offstage, lessening its impact. This is followed by Larry's decision to print the first topless tabloid photo on page three, arguably a lamentable event but lacking in impact after the grisly, melodramatic details of the McKay affair. (Rana Roy is very good as Stephanie, who bears the consequences of her exploitation with steely endurance.) By the time The Sun is within shooting distance of its sales goal, a certain amount of vitality has been allowed to slip away.

Still, Ink is a sharp-tongued, clear-eyed account of how today's cutthroat, bread-and-circus brand of populist journalism was born. (The play doesn't say so, but in Murdoch's future is the News of the World scandal, in which the paper was caught hacking the phones of the famous and obscure alike.) In addition to its gallery of colorful characters and reams of acid dialogue, the play also offers a lively primer in the details of newspaper production, which will amaze those raised on iPads. Besides the design elements already mentioned, Christie's costumes are accurate reflections of the story's time and place, and Jon Driscoll's projections - of newspaper logos, layouts, and headlines, some of them serving as background to the London skyline -- are especially evocative.

The set also features five lightboxes that spell the letter W, a reference to the archetypal journalistic questions: who, what, where, when, and why. Larry, counterintuitively, insists that the last is the least important: "Once you know why something happened the story's over, it's dead," he says. The closest Ink comes to explaining why Murdoch built his empire of trash is the suggestion that he did it because he could; this may be as good a reason as any. In any case, having conquered Fleet Street, he moved on to this country, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1985. Whatever you think of his actions in Ink, he's all ours now. --David Barbour

(2 May 2019)

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