Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons’ Nixon-era radio drama has a lot going for it. There’s a cast of seasoned actors, notably Jack Gilpin and Peter Van Norden; there’s the remarkable sound design by Lindsay Jones, and there’s the meticulous research demonstrated in the script. But even with all that expertise, “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers” needs to present a reason for retelling its press-vs.-the-president story, which it never manages to do. The LA Theaterworks co-production with New York Theater Workshop is slick and easy to watch, but it’s unclear why everyone bothered in the first place.
Kathryn Meisle plays Katharine Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post, who, along with her main editor Ben Bradlee (played by Peter Strauss) and a team of legal advisers, bravely flouted the Nixon administration’s unconstitutional ban on publishing the Pentagon Papers. Larry Pine plays President Nixon including his strange half-courtly, half-simian bearing.
Since this is a radio play (originally recorded in 1991), the actors stand in front of a series of microphones with script in hand, reading exposition and folding in stage directions whenever possible (“Here it is. Let me read it to you”). Everyone addresses everyone else by their first name at the beginning of the sentence, so that the folks at home (and short people) will know who’s talking to whom.
About an hour in, reality starts to intrude on the proceedings. Isn’t this also the newspaper whose executive editor recently admitted (in his own pages) that it was no longer “a national news organization of record serving a general audience?” What does the Post of the ’70s have to teach us today?
The script hasn’t been updated much, and answers are not forthcoming. In fact, Cowan and Aarons seem intent not on discussing the past’s relationship with the present, but on lionizing the virtues of the free press at a time when it seemed in danger. Thematically, this means visiting territory better explored in “Frost/Nixon,” a play that encouraged its aud to afford a little sympathy for Tricky Dick and also suggested that the news media are not made up entirely of lovable curmudgeons with the best interests of their readership at heart.
Everybody knows the Post still publishes, so the efforts to whip up some urgency around the question of whether or not Richard Nixon will be able to destroy the venerable daily in court seem futile.
John Rubinstein’s direction is good, and the show’s tech package finds a lot of interesting ways to make the ears-only performance watchable (although the Foley always gets a laugh, whether it’s appropriate or not).
As anyone who watches “The Simpsons” knows, a good voice actor is someone who can subtly exaggerate every single inflection to map out for the audience the detailed facial expressions they can’t see. One suspects that the actors whose work looks best onstage (such as Van Norden) are either totally different or sound toneless and uninterested on the radio. Conversely, Strauss’ Bradlee may look a little like an Edward G. Robinson impression up close, but it’s a perfect performance with your eyes closed.
With that in mind, “Top Secret” is going to be of greatest interest to people who love radio theater. For a general audience, though, it doesn’t pay to revisit Nixon’s weird and sometimes terrifying presidency if all you’re going to do is take a victory lap.