Former newspaperman Gabe McKinley has written a play about the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal, which rocked the New York Times back in 2003 but is now as faded as yesterday’s news. “CQ/CX” might or might not ruffle some feathers over at the Gray Lady, but the real-life drama of the situation is pretty much absent onstage in this Atlantic Theater Company production.
Times intern Jay Bennett (Kobi Libii), the play’s stand-in for Blair, is promoted to permanent reporter despite numerous signs that he is making things up as he goes along. The dramatist clumsily shows how Bennett cuts corners and how management overlooks said lapses because the black reporter is under the protection of black managing editor Gerald Haynes (Peter Jay Fernandez). Bennett goes on to plagiarize enough stories to drag himself and the Times through the mud. In the aftermath, publisher Junior (i.e. Arthur Sulzberger Jr., as played by David Pittu) wrings his hands and executive editor Hal Martin (Arliss Howard) — a close carbon of real-life Howell Raines — gets sacked.
All of this is done in dozens of brief scenes, with an overdose of moving scenery but little insight into why Bennett indulges in plagiarism and phony sources. McKinley does demonstrate that his villain has a mean temper, hits on his pal’s gal, and overdoes the alcohol and cocaine, but that doesn’t quite help us understand this underwritten character.
Scribe — who overlapped with Blair at the Times — has a talent for coming up with tantalizing Aaron Sorkin-like lines, but buries them in a play that lumbers along. Director David Leveaux lavishes a great deal of ingenuity on staging the play, but David Rockwell’s inventive sets would probably work better with winches and motors instead of repeated manual effort from the cast.
Things might fare better with a charismatic performance in the central role, but Libii is unable to compensate for the holes in the writing. On the plus side are enjoyable turns from Howard (layered in cornpone), Fernandez, Larry Bryggman as an out-to-pasture editor and especially Steve Rosen as the hero’s betrayed friend. Pittu (“LoveMusik,” “Is He Dead?”), who over the last decade has created a parade of eccentric characters, here demonstrates that he is just as good in suit, tie and vest.
“CQ/CX” is the sort of play in which the author blithely uses the World Trade Center bombing as a mere device to bring down the first act curtain. McKinley never bothers to explain clearly the meaning of the title — it’s editor-lingo for facts that need to be checked or corrected. The play itself could use some strong editing.