Documentary filmmaker Dan Klores brings a cinematic eye to “The Wood,” his reverential bio-dram about Mike McAlary, the muckraking NYC newspaper columnist who won a Pulitzer in 1998 for his sensational expose of police brutality against Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. Episodic and unfocused in its overlong first act, show pulls itself together in act two for some tough scenes between Louima and McAlary, who would die of cancer at 41, the year after he won his Pulitzer. The material has power, but the whole structure of the piece needs overhauling to make a real impact.
Two solid perfs from John Viscardi (as McAlary) and Vladimir Versailles (as Louima) and nice backup from Kim Director and Melanie Charles (as their respective wives) give ballast to the jumpy production helmed by David Bar Katz.
Viscardi nails both the journalistic hunger that made McAlary such a tenacious news hound and that attitude of compassion and understanding that made people trust him with their deepest secrets. He’s also winning when McAlary addresses the audience directly to reveal a passion for cutthroat journalism, a sense of justice that made him a “superhero for the working class,” and an ego the size of a house.
Versailles is most sympathetic in the hospital scenes in which a badly beaten Louima bares his humiliation and pain to the reporter who would splash his story on the front page of the Daily News. He also establishes great rapport with Charles, so touching as Louima’s distraught wife.
But it takes an unendurable length of time before Louima comes out of the shadows to focus McAlary’s attention and point the play in a dramatic direction. Until then, Klores relies on a series of sketchy scenes — written in no consistent style and performed the same way — to fill in McAlary’s backstory and flesh out the character of this driven man, so competitive that he would skip chemotherapy to chase down a news tip.
There may be a good play in here somewhere, but right now it’s a jumble of bits and pieces waiting for the rewrite desk.