BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
An ambitious new drama by Gabe McKinley, “CQ/CX” is a lightly fictionalized account of a scandal that hit The New York Times in 2003 when Jayson Blair, a young reporter, was exposed as fabricating and plagiarizing some of his stories.
Journalists may be entertained by McKinley’s depiction of the Times’ internal processes and pressures – the title refers to fact-checking notations -- but one doubts whether the general public will thrill to this chewy but unfocused drama that opened Wednesday at the Peter Norton Space.
For the record, I write freelance reviews about New Jersey and Long Island shows for the Times’ weekly Metro section, but the play’s events happened long before my association with the publication.
Unfolding during the late 1990s-early 2000s, the story involves a lot of insider baseball stuff about real-life Times honchos like publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. and executive editor Howell Raines (their names changed here) as their news organization copes with the evolving media industry. Jay Bennett, a newbie African-American reporter, manipulates his command of the internet and the race card to become a rising star only to implode when his chronic facts-fudging is revealed.
While McKinley furnishes plenty of behind-the-front-page color, his drama is fatally hollow at its core, where the central figure of the errant reporter remains a shadowy character. Why the bright Jay goes so wrong never is explained satisfactorily.
Not a documentary nor a satire nor a character study that packs an emotional clout, “CQ/CX” at best offers a cautionary look at a mighty organization tripped up by its own sense of superiority.
The playwright provides some well-written exchanges and Atlantic Theater Company’s premiere is swiftly and handsomely staged by director David Leveaux. The underwritten character of Jay is blithely played by Kobi Libii to suggest his ever-evasive nature. Brightest among a strong cast are Tim Hopper as a steely editor, Peter Jay Fernandez as a rival editor with an agenda, Larry Bryggman as a veteran Times newshound and David Pittu as the publisher burdened by his institutional legacy.
Designer David Rockwell cleverly employs sliding screens and moving background projections to animate the multi-scene drama within a frame of vintage office equipment painted grey to evoke the Times’ “grey lady” mystique. David Van Tieghem’s music and sound design lend aural atmospherics.
“CQ/CX” continues through March 11 at the Peter Norton Space, 555 W. 42nd St., New York. Call (212) 279-4200 or visit www.atlantictheater.org.