On Wednesday evening, 29 February, Diana, my frequent theater partner, and I went to the Peter Norton Space, the temporary home of the Atlantic Theater Company (their Chelsea home base is under reconstruction until the spring), to see the world première of Gabe McKinley’s CQ/CX, a play set in the world of daily newspaper journalism.
CQ/CX follows Jay Bennett, an emerging African-American reporter at the New York Times. Bennett aspires to become a famous newsman, but his dreams disintegrate around him when he becomes the center of a plagiarism scandal. McKinley’s drama is inspired by the true story of Jayson Blair, forced to resign from the Times in May 2003 when the paper revealed that he had cribbed many of his stories and invented details and fabricated reporting and interviews without ever leaving his Brooklyn apartment. The playwright has changed the names of the people involved and some characters are composites, but the facts remain closely parallel to the real events. CQ/CX also doesn’t shy away from the more difficult aspects of the story, including the aftermath of the exposure. Because Blair is black, there were allegations that he’d been promoted and advanced in his career because of his race, and that he’d gotten away with what he’d been doing for so long for the same reason. “People of color who believe they’ve achieved on their own merits become insecure because they’re worried that they were only pushed forward because of affirmative action,” says Kobi Libii, the actor who plays Bennett. “That’s part of what drives this incarnation of the character to deceive his colleagues at the paper.” McKinley asserts that that’s a main theme of the play. “In any scandal the most dramatic and tragic elements are in the ways it’s ground up and churned out,” observes the playwright. While exploring topical questions such as what makes good journalism and how a story should be told, CQ/CX also looks at issues that include racial politics, gender bias, cultural elitism, and political correctness.
McKinley, whose last play in New York City was Extinction at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 2010, is in a good position to know something not just about journalism, but the Blair scandal in particular. He worked at the New York Times for 12 years, spanning Blair’s tenure at the paper, and his brothers Jesse and James are both reporters for the Times now. (James writes about music and Jesse reports on theater and heads the San Francisco bureau.) The McKinley brothers’ father was also a reporter (Esquire and Playboy in the ’70s), so it’s a milieu Gabe McKinley ought to know well. He affirms that the Blair saga had a “deep” effect on him: "I always thought it was such a dramatic situation, the confluence of personalities, and the news breaking at the time, from 9/11 to Afghanistan to sniper attacks and anthrax incidents. It felt like the whole world was ending.” He was compelled to write about the experience, he says. It took him almost ten years to come to grips with the events, however. Asked why he didn’t just write a biographical play about Blair, McKinley explains: “It’s a work for the theater and I felt, like Jayson, that to get closer to the truth I had to get farther from the facts sometimes. I had to create some characters and create composites of several people.”
The dramatist, who left the Times in 2008, got to know Blair some while they were at the paper. “He wasn't much older than me. We used to hang out quite a bit," McKinley recalls. But he adds, "It's hard to know what he was actually like. He had a secret life, obviously. He was a gregarious, fun-loving, charming guy. He enjoyed the nightlife. He liked the idea of the work-hard, play-hard journalist. He really embraced that as part of his identity." Though he still admires the paper greatly, the playwright acknowledges that the humans who run it can make mistakes. "This play is a look at traditions, at legacies and ultimately at hubris,” McKinley points out. “There are great minds involved who were basically hoodwinked." McKinley hasn’t seen Blair since the former reporter left the paper, but Blair, now working in Virginia as a life coach, has said he would try to see CQ/CX. “It’s kind of a great opportunity again for people to learn from my mistakes,” Blair says.
McKinley’s job at the Times included compiling the corrections that are published on page two of the front section every day. (He was an editorial assistant, but he says he worked in every department.) It’s from that aspect of newspaper work that the play’s title comes: “CQ” is the abbreviation of cadit quaestio, Latin for ‘the question falls,’ which editors write in the margins of a draft article when they determine that an unusual word or fact is, indeed, correct. “CX,” shorthand for ‘correction,’ marks text that needs verification. (Oddly, some sources give the definitions in reverse, but I derived mine from a published interview with McKinley—so I’ll go with the dramatist’s intent on this.) Unfortunately, McKinley never really develops this locution into a theme in the play and it remains just one of the factoids about newspapering that the writer drops into the script.
The play, unhappily, has several more serious problems, both on the page and on the stage. Let me start with the first set, the script troubles. It’s clear that McKinley’s a tyro playwright; his bio lists few scripts and only one’s been staged here. (McKinley wasn’t a reporter at the Times, either, but an editorial assistant, so his writing credentials in that field are limited, too.) I ascribe many of the dramaturgical faults of CQ/CX to a writer not yet sure how to handle the medium and who’s main knowledge of dramatic writing seems to be from television. The two-and-a-quarter-hour play’s made up of short scenes, some very brief, separated by swift scene changes covered by the sounds of a newsroom (typewriters, computer keyboards, ringing phones, etc.) as moving panels, covered with projections of news text, shift back and forth across the stage (“an overdose of moving scenery,” says Variety). (The set is by David Rockwell, with projections by Peter Nigrini and C. Andrew Bauer. The lighting design is from Ben Stanton and David Van Tieghem created the original music and the soundscape.) Few of the scenes are linked causally (though the narrative connects most of them), and they are frequently focused on exposition rather than drama. The one good scene theatrically was one among the publisher (David Pittu) and his managing and executive editors (Peter Jay Fernandez and Arliss Howard, respectively) after the crisis has broken: the three men engage one another, not always graciously, and each has a strong, private objective to pursue—it’s an actual dramatic scene, a confrontation, rather than just story-telling. Though I haven’t seen any corroboration of this supposition, my feeling is that either McKinley set out to write a TV movie or he inadvertently ended up having composed one.
Perhaps more damaging, the play’s not really about Jay Bennett or anyone else in the cast. Bennett’s function in the play is as a catalyst: he makes the story happen, but he doesn’t change as a result of the play’s action. We know the story’s about Bennett only because the source material’s about Jayson Blair; however, McKinley’s focus isn’t on any person, but the paper—or the idea of The Times, the Gray Lady, which the playwright clearly reveres. I’m not sure any writer can make this work on stage (it might work on film and especially on TV, though even Deadline U.S.A. had to have strong characters, led by Humphrey Bogart’s editor, to work as a film melodrama), but without characters on whom to focus, with whom to sympathize, the play becomes too diffuse for me to care much about anyone or, even, the paper itself. In the Village Voice, Michael Feingold gives a good, concise analysis of what I think went wrong in CQ/CX:
A story in a newspaper and a story onstage are two different things. A newspaper reports the facts—at least, one hopes it does—and only occasionally takes an in-depth look behind them. When a play takes up facts, it's supposed to dramatize them—meaning not only that we watch while, seemingly, the facts occur to the people involved, but also that we end by getting a deeper understanding of how and why these facts have occurred.
McKinley asserts that his play is about a number of human conditions he sees reflected in the scandal and the circumstances at the Times, but while lip service is given to many of them, the playwright doesn’t examine the issues, or look at the characters in their light. (The Internet gets a mention, for instance, but there’s no exploration of its effect on the future of the news business.) In my criteria for good theater, CQ/CX fails the test of doing more than telling a story. As Feingold intimates, I learn very little about the human condition from McKinley’s play.
As for the production, the first error, in my estimation, is a casting mistake. Young Kobi Libii may eventually be a powerful actor, but at present, he’s a lightweight. (Elisabeth Vincentelli in the New York Post says he “doesn’t have an ounce of charisma.”) He gets lost on stage whenever anyone else is there or whenever anything is happening that steals focus from him. Director David Leveaux seems to have taken a chance on an untried performer, and maybe that’s a generous impulse that could have paid off, but he chose wrong in this case. What the part seems to have needed is a young Andre Braugher, an actor who attracts focus even when he’s out of the spotlight; Libii fades away. (I don’t mean to put the blame on the actor’s physical attributes, but Libii’s slight and willowy with a light voice, making him seem more like an adolescent than an ambitious and manipulative young man.) When Bennett makes excuses for his behavior and argues that he isn’t responsible for his failures, Libii sounds more like a whiny teenager trying to get out of trouble at school than a fighter with his back against the ropes. Unfortunately, Leveaux’s other casting choices aren’t a whole lot better. (The best stage presence in the cast is Larry Bryggman, whose aging, obsolescent old-time reporter is a wonderful little portrait, if a bit of a cliché. Bryggman’s Frank King, however, is just a grace note in the play, a sort of echo of times past against whom to measure the current staff of both editors and cub reporters. If the character were cut, the play wouldn’t change.) None of the actors makes his or her character more than a plot point, someone to move the story along, but not to introduce dramatic conflict, tension, suspense, or revelation. Many (except Arliss Howard, who sometimes seemed as if he were on a different stage) seem to be indulging in what we used to call studio acting, what acting students do while they’re working on acting technique, but which isn’t meant for paying audiences. With the short and fast-changing scenes of the script, none of the characters registers for long, and the actors (and the director) never overcome this deficit.
The New York Times review was mixed, suggesting that the playwright was too concerned with the story and the details of the circumstances—the confusing and rapidly evolving situation at the paper, for instance—and not enough to the stage drama. It’s interesting to note, though, that the notice was written by Frank Rizzo, the theater reviewer of the Hartford, Connecticut, Courant, not someone from the Times’s theater or cultural staff. I’ve never seen that as far I can remember, and I wondered why at first. (Rizzo, also a frequent contributor to Variety, was identified in a blurb at the bottom of the column, but the paper gave no explanation for his appearance in its pages.) Suddenly, it dawned on me: Of course the Times would bring in an outsider to review CQ/CX. The playwright is a former Times employee, his brothers both write for the paper, the characters in the play are all versions of real current or former Timesmen, and the plot is a New York Times scandal. Whether or not any present staff writer knew Blair or was at the paper when he was there, the appearance of a potential conflict of interest could make any evaluation of the play suspect—especially considering how significant the Times’s reviews are believed to be in the world of New York theater. (Here’s an interesting question: If the New York Times is the most powerful voice in theater reviewing in this city, does a review by a non-Times writer carry as much weight just because it’s published in the Gray Lady? Not according to one reader: “I will disregard this review and await a proper review from a New York Times critic.” The commenter signed the e-mail, rather chauvinistically to my eye, “NEW YORK TIMES Subscriber. NOT the Hartford Courant.”) So the Blair scandal, which seems to have been ancient history at the Times in all other respects, still has repercussions eight years later, in a department with which Blair had no connection. (Why Rizzo was selected rather than any other non-Times reviewer, I have no guess. It might be interesting to find out, but probably not relevant.)
Rizzo, describing the play as “less ‘Front Page’ than ‘Front Page Correction’—a straightforward dramatization and a cautionary tale of ambition, deception and hubris,” concludes, “Like a good journalist Mr. McKinley lays out those facts, adds color and provides an authoritative voice, but . . . ‘CQ/CX’ only lightly suggests themes of class, power and race.” In Variety, Steven Suskin observes that the “real-life drama of the situation is pretty much absent onstage” and closes with, “The play itself could use some strong editing.” Back Stage’s Erik Haagensen writes that the play “rarely dips beneath the surface, playing more like an extended TV-drama episode” (as if agreeing with my own suggestion!) and declares that Leveaux’s “busy production” does little more in the end than “accentuate the shallowness of McKinley's two-dimensional script.” The Voice’s Feingold, while applauding the “smart efficiency” of Leveaux’s direction, says that the “first-rate acting, like the lucid wordsmithing and the bustle of Leveaux's staging, animate the story but never deepen it.” Vincentelli of the Post writes bluntly, “‘CQ/CX’ . . . is a cheesy, ham-fisted affair.” On the other hand, in New York’s Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz asserts, “Save for some clunky exposition, McKinley’s script is crisp and smart,” though he adds, “It’s too bad that eventually the play becomes wimpy.” The nays far outnumbered the yeas.
Michael Feingold adds, “McKinley has dramatized for theatergoers the difference between old plays, which sometimes stay alive, and old news, which notoriously doesn't.” The Supreme Court has declared that corporations are people, at least for the purposes of politics. Gabe McKinley has proved to me that a newspaper isn’t a character, at least not for a successful stage drama.
[Coincidentally, the story of Jayson Blair at the New York Times was the basis for a murder mystery on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. In October 2003, the series aired an episode called “Pravda” (both the name of the Communist Party newspaper of the Soviet Union and the Russian word for ‘truth’) whose plot revolves around the investigation of a murder, during which the detectives question the alibi of Carl Hines, a star African-American reporter on the Sentinel, who can’t produce out-of-town receipts and has a history of filing false stories.]