Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson shows a keen talent for dramatizing hot-button issues with her first major work, “The Story,” a taut but flawed script about ethics and ambition at a big-city newspaper. In its West Coast debut at International City Theatre in Long Beach, director Caryn Desai gets laser-sharp performances from an impressive cast in a smartly staged production that makes the play’s shortcomings tolerable, if not entirely forgivable.
Yvonne (Jennifer Shelton) is a young African-American journalist with everything: beauty, smarts and an impressive pedigree that includes stints at Harvard and the Sorbonne. She has just arrived at her first major newspaper, the Daily News, but she’s determined to rise fast. It doesn’t hurt that she’s sleeping with Jeff (Jeff Marlowe), a respected Metro editor.
But there’s a large roadblock in Yvonne’s career path: Pat (Judyann Elder), the editor of the Outlook section. Essentially a community page for African-Americans, Outlook is the kind of place Yvonne sees as a dead end. Pat’s endless orders to cover neighborhood social centers seem like a waste of time to Yvonne, as does her criticism of Yvonne’s sloppy reporting. Yvonne is dismissive of Neil (Michael Craig Patterson), Pat’s star reporter, who thinks Yvonne’s smooth urbanity and finishing-school manner are signs of racial self-denial.
Yvonne gets the career break she craves when a young white teacher from a rich family is murdered in a poor black neighborhood. Yvonne claims to have found the alleged murderer — a black teen who strangely shares some of Yvonne’s qualities. Is the girl real, or a convenient chimera dreamed up by a reporter desperate to achieve greatness? Media followers could cite a number of real-life sources for this familiar tale, from Janet Cooke to Jayson Blair.
Shelton shines in the central role. As Yvonne, at first she’s a whirlwind of raw ambition and manipulative sexual allure. But as Yvonne’s world begins to collapse, snatches of the desperation that motivate this complex and deeply troubled woman are exposed.
Elder’s Pat runs uncomfortably close to stereotype — the haughtier-than-thou Civil Rights-era veteran — but she’s a smart enough actress to work nuance into the part. Patterson is an amusing mix of smarminess and panic as Neil. He and Shelton share the play’s best scene, a restaurant meeting between tough competitors that’s fraught with ulterior motives and one-upmanship.
Wilson’s script is hampered by credibility problems. A big one: What major paper would publish a murderer’s confession using an assumed name and no corroborating sources?
But Desai keeps such questions at bay with her fast-paced staging, distinguished by Robert Altman-esque overlapping conversations and upstage/downstage split-scene blocking on Dan Wheeler’s spare set. Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting adds gritty verisimilitude, particularly to urban night scenes. All in all, it’s a satisfying package.