In the early hours of Dec. 20, 1989, NBC News’ Tom Brokaw, in the course of the network’s live coverage of the American invasion of Panama, conducted two broadcast telephone interviews with Roger Sizemore, an American businessman from Southern California, who was trapped in the Marriott Hotel in Panama City. NBC found the interviews so compelling that Sizemore, while still trapped in the hotel, was interviewed hours later by Brokaw and Bryant Gumbel on the “Today” show. In a thoroughly compelling probe of the potential for the manufacture of news by the media, Glen Merzer (screenwriter of “Enemies of Laughter”) chronicles the misadventures of Brian Seifert (Brett Thacher), a computer consultant from Indianapolis who claims he was the voice of Sizemore, reporting not from Panama but from the basement of his suburban home.
Adroitly intermingling Seifert’s post-broadcast reminiscences with dramatic re-enactments of the interviews themselves, Merzer utilizes the extremely limited Hudson Guild stage space to good effect as the players in this true- life drama, which Seifert insists was orchestrated by NBC News staffers, seldom leave the stage area but simply fade in and out of focus. Thacher captures the essence of the egotistical, self-involved computer consultant who slowly descends into a quagmire of self-destructive paranoia as he unsuccessfully strives to establish the veracity of his claims.
The most compelling aspect of the show is the series of telephone conversations between Seifert and the smooth-talking NBC News staffer who calls herself Kayla (Lili Nadja Barsha). As Seifert is awakened in the middle of the night by Kayla’s phone call, he discovers he’s talking to a woman who mistakenly believes he is a man named Roger, with whom she had a brief fling years earlier in Santa Fe.
Barsha exudes a wonderful aura of sophistication and sensuality as the superbly composed manipulator who convinces Seifert that “if it is good for NBC, it is good for America.” In one hilarious exchange, Kayla coaches him into describing the beating of a tourist at the hotel by members of the Panamanian militia. When Seifert asks if the tourist is American, Kayla replies, “No, make him French. That way the audience won’t feel so bad.”
Her efforts are abetted by effectively jovial fellow NBC staffer Arun (Anjul Nigam), who serves as Seifert’s telephone conduit to Brokaw and Gumbel.
The eventual disintegration of Seifert’s personal life is highlighted by a series of encounters with his thoroughly disapproving wife, Cindy, played with a haunting sense of sadness and loss by Tina Morasco. Claude Stuart captures the style if not actual vocal likenesses of Brokaw and Gumbel.
As a form of disclaimer, the production offers a video presentation of the actual “Today” broadcast and a startling revelation to end the show.