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Once upon a time journalism, at least as depicted on stage and film, looked like fun: crusading underpaid reporters uncovered dark secrets while wisecracking one another in fierce, playful competition. The 24-hour news cycle has leached much of the joy, and romance, from the profession, replacing it with celebrity, vanity and rhetorical cat-calling.
From The Front Page through Park Row to All The President’s Men, newspaper stories formed a genre of their own, with elements of comedy, mystery, and suspense, as well as healthy and usually unpretentious doses of social consciousness and crusade. Above the Fold, enjoying a crackerjack world premiere production in Pasadena, plays very much like Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole refurbished in contemporary drag. Playwright Bernard Weinraub, a career lifer at The New York Times (and its Hollywood correspondent for eight years), brings an insider’s savvy and bite to his moralistic chagrin at the state of the profession and, more generally, the traffic in what passes for information.
Jane (Oscar and Emmy nominee Taraji P. Henson), a black reporter frustrated by the thickness of the glass ceiling at an unnamed prominent newspaper that cannot be other than The Grey Lady herself, is dispatched to an obscure political assignment in North Carolina when she gets the scoop on the gang rape of a black party dancer by white fraternity boys. The district attorney, Lorne (Mark Hildreth), running an uphill race for Congress, suspends campaigning to become a national celebrity for his zealous prosecution of the presumably entitled perpetrators, abetted by Jane’s front-page coverage. Yet as Jane digs deeper in her interviews with the victim Monique (Kristy Johnson) and the accused students, she finds the easy stereotypes and preconceptions don’t withstand scrutiny of the facts, doubts that are not sympathetically received by her editor Marvin (Arye Gross), who himself is accountable to the whims and exigencies of his higher-ups.
The story of course is drawn very closely from the 2006 Duke University lacrosse team case, which ought to have remained vivid enough in audience memory to compromise a lot of the plot twists. Weinraub’s careful and sturdy craftsmanship structures the narrative and thematic beats so meticulously that many of the arguments and developments can be readily anticipated, particularly once the overall architecture can be apprehended. Only the very sheltered or those afflicted with immediate term attention spans will be shocked by its revelations of hidden agendas in even the most self-consciously virtuous of journalistic institutions (such exposes were already standard-issue in the genre almost a century ago). The play is not immune to the blandishments of high-mindedness, which it eagerly encourages the audience to share.
Nevertheless, Above the Fold makes for crackling, intelligent entertainment, the sort of commercial play that used to be a mainstay of serious Broadway. While the moral issues are neither examined with particular profundity nor superficiality, they are dramatized with a keen sense of their dismaying difficulty and presented cogently in dramatic terms. Weinraub displays a genuine empathy for the appalling choices life presents in differing ways for the deprived and the privileged. The play can be didactic in its systematic demolishing of the risks of jumping to conclusions and how reflexive and persistent stereotypes can be, and how cynically those impulses will be exploited. He makes the important point that while pursuing the higher goals of truth (and justice), every professional is still part of a business that depends upon the pleasure of its consumers. He may be earnest and doggedly old-fashioned, yet his play stays strongly in touch with the dilemmas of the now. To use a tattered locution, it’s “torn from the pages of today’s headlines.”
Weinraub has created swell parts for a canny cast, and Steven Robman directs with vigor and dash, abetted by inventive and pertinent designers. Henson limns a dimensional character whose complexity is only slightly diluted by the play’s requirement that she be a relentlessly empathetic audience surrogate. She finds a convincing contemporary idiom for those girl reporters of yore played by Claire Trevor, Rosalind Russell or Glenda Farrell, and while never quite descending to be a heel in heels, she does touchingly convey the pain in the ethical peril of principle conflicting with self-interest, which is so commonly mistaken for survival. Also especially noteworthy among the uniformly strong actors, making her third appearance at the Pasadena Playhouse (after utterly contrasting roles in Intimate Apparel and Jitney), Johnson finds many layers to reveal in a shallow character who can barely perceive any plausible sense of self, heedless of her havoc wreaked upon all.
Venue: The Pasadena Playhouse (runs through Feb. 23)
Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Kristy Johnson, Mark Hildreth, Arye Gross, Kristopher Higgins, Joe Massingill, Seamus Mulcahy
Director: Steven Robman
Playwright: Bernard Weinraub
Sset designer: Jeffrey P. Eisenmann
Lighting designer: Adam Blumenthal
Sound designer: Cricket S. Myers
Costume designer: Dana Rebecca Woods
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