This review was updated on Oct. 12, 2004.
The contradictions pile up quickly: Tom Stoppard’s 1978 play about war correspondents could not be more timely, given embedded journalists in Iraq, the question of news net objectivity (Fox, CBS, Al-Jazeera) and the steady stream of horrific images. But a plot that turns for both motivation and ironic comeuppance on a Telex machine could not, in this electronic era, be more dated. This seemingly witty satire about freedom of the press turns out to be tediously earnest. What’s worse is that the play advocates the need for clarity of information but has a storyline so convoluted it’s almost unfollowable.
The issue is an insurgency led by Col. Shimbu in a fictional African country called Kambawe, run by an Idi Amin-like dictator. There are the issues of copper mines, colonialism, Communism and unions. But mostly there is competition to get the lead story into the Sunday paper in London.
Vile shenanigans in the public sphere are echoed by the jockeying for power in the sexual arena. Hotshot reporter Wagner (Richard Sheridan Willis) and the copper magnate’s wife, Ruth (Carla Harting), have had a one-night fling in London. Although he is the professional as well as sexual authority, Ruth now is drawn to Ginty (Jacob Milne), an idealistic young freelancer who has scooped everybody by lucking into an interview with Shimbu. Ruth’s aristocratic husband, Carson, as portrayed by Michael Rudko, is so vague and tentative that his power over his wife — matrimonially, economically and socially — is never convincing.
Ruth is the pivotal character and the trickiest role since she speaks — even sings — her thoughts to us while carrying on normal conversations with other characters. Her external persona should be icily elegant and absurdly upper-class, while the tart within is seductive and giggly. This final contradiction, and the only necessary one, is erased, since Harting makes no distinction whatsoever between the two sides of her personality.
The crassness of this production — lots of gorgeous spectacle with no verbal felicity — is entirely at odds with the talky script.
The opening scene — one of Stoppard’s famous false fronts, a dream that we take for reality — has Scott Sowers, as the photographer, asleep in a garden chair. While being shot at from a helicopter, he jumps from his jeep, holding up his credentials and shouting “Press! Press!,” but is killed anyway.
This is the setup for a real death in a jeep later in the play, and his shout certainly announces the show’s topic. Unfortunately, nobody understood the word Sowers was saying, partly because of his very fake accent, and partly because of the deafening sound effects.
Decibel levels become even more puzzling when the other actors enter the quiet, civilized living room at startling top volume. This weirdly amateurish quality is underscored by the woodenness of gestures, as though some stylistic commitment to unnaturalness was a production decision.
“Night and Day” may not be top-drawer Stoppard, but it deserves better than this.