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Theatre Review by Marc Miller - March 16, 2024

The Cast
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Rupert Murdoch is a scourge, a reckless power monger whose pursuit of material gain has irrevocably changed and devalued the journalistic universe. On that much many of us will probably agree; if you don't, you may just want to stop here, and you certainly don't want to see this play. But surely there's a livelier way to convey Murdoch's scalawag tactics and sorry influence on world affairs than Corruption, J.T. Rogers's complicated chronicle of a 2010 scandal that temporarily rocked and brought low News International, until that Murdoch company wriggled out of it.

Murdoch may be seen as Corruption's driving force, but he never shows up. Instead, it's mostly about Rebekah Brooks (Saffron Burrows), the forceful editor who climbed up through Murdoch's News of the World, The Sun, and News International, later renamed News UK, where she reigns today. We meet her as she's marrying Charlie Brooks (John Behlmann), a dashing horse trainer who seems happy to allow her the upper hand in most matters. Everyone, it seems, is at the celebration, except the absent Rupert: his son James (Seth Numrich), now officially running the company; Prime Minister Gordon Brown (Anthony Cochrane); Brown's nemesis and eventual successor, David Cameron (nobody, he's offstage). Amid the chitchat among some powerful people, we get that a) James wants to phase out print and take News International deeper into the Internet Age, and up its broadcast presence by taking over BskyB, which will figure into the action later, much later; and b) shareholder wealth is paramount.

It's only gradually, through too many short scenes involving too many characters played by too few actors, do we grasp the callousness of one of Rebekah's principal news gathering methods: Her reporters hack phones. This outrages Labour MP Tom Watson (Toby Stephens, the only actor besides Burrows to play only one role), who endeavors with journalist Martin Hickman (Sanjit De Silva) to expose it all in the eventual book "Dial M for Murdoch," Corruption's source material.

It's a vital, upsetting tale of unscrupulousness of various varieties perpetrated by bigwigs who dodge the consequences Because They Can. Why does so much of it, particularly the draggy first act, feel like reportage? Myriad characters, too many to keep track of, are trotted out to keep the plot whirring. That doesn't leave a lot of time to develop character, and some arresting personal stories get slighted. Tom, a Murdoch target, is seeing his marriage erode as the Murdoch forces prey on his wife (Robyn Kerr) and son. Rebekah and Charlie are having a baby through a surrogate mother, nicely played by Kerr. News International's hacking commits atrocities on what the script calls an "ensemble of victims," whose stories are indeed heartrending, and angering. But that's small stuff next to the mountain of recriminations, payoffs, political hackery, and legal technicalities piling up on the here's-what-happened side. Rogers unveils a full canvas. Maybe too full.

We know he can spin out a complex story about a big topic in a compelling way: The man wrote Oslo, the gripping history of the Oslo Peace Accords. Here he may just be going into too much damn detail about the mechanics of journalistic misbehavior and prosecution thereof, and not enough about the personalities of the people caught in the controversies. Things do pick up with an upbeat Act One curtain, involving George Michael of all people, and remain somewhat livelier in the second act, as The New York Times takes up Watson's cause and the matter speeds toward trial, where justice is triumphant, until it isn't. But all the time we're doing a lot of mental calculus, trying to keep the legal fine points and the dramatis personae, some 50 in all, straight.

Michael Yeargan's set is simple yet busy, a series of desk-tables that stagehands keep furiously rearranging, while a circular row of TV monitors above spin out distracting news stories. Relevant tweets pop up upstage, often too quickly to be digested. Even the curtain call is visually overstimulated, with photos of the actual characters vying for attention as the actors take their bows. As for the actors, they're fine, and I especially like Michael Siberry's work in five roles. Burrows's Rebekah seems a little one-note, or maybe that's Rogers's writing, which forces us to admire Rebekah's authority and assertiveness even as we deplore what she's doing with them. But once you've seen her first scene, with Rebekah seizing control while stepping on other people, you've essentially seen the performance. The proficient Stephens makes us like Tom–maybe more than we should, given that his virtuous quest for justice conflicts with his role as Gordon Brown's hatchet man, ready to rough up any Labour crony who doesn't want to vote the party line.

Bartlett Sher, generally lauded for bringing out the full humanity of his characters in his direction, doesn't here, what with so much fact-spouting obscuring it. Which leaves Corruption a well-intentioned retelling of a troubling episode in the history of news gathering, one that spends perhaps too much time in the weeds. As for Murdoch, he just turned 93 and announced his engagement to what will be his fifth wife. We've had Ink, we have this one, and there are probably several plays left in the old man yet.

Through April 14, 2024
Mitzi E. Newhouse at Lincoln Center, 150 W 65th St, New York NY
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