The media world is backstabbing and venal, and publicists think casting their clients in the latest TV reality show will solve all their problems: hardly earth-shattering news. But even if the milieu and supposed insights of Sam Peter Jackson’s new play, “Public Property,” are overly familiar, his dialogue is sharp and funny, while Hanna Berrigan’s crackingly paced, beautifully acted production grabs auds’ attention and evokes considerable pathos.
In the first scene, after learning critics have panned his newly published autobiography, closeted London TV newscaster Geoffrey (Robert Daws) petulantly fires his high-flying publicist Larry (Nigel Harman). But soon after, paparazzi catch Geoffrey in flagrante with working-class teen Jamie (Steven Webb), whom he meets seemingly by chance in a hotel parking lot.
Geoffrey arrives at Larry’s apartment in the middle of the night begging for help to spin him out of the mess — with both Jamie and the nation’s media hot on his heels.
The action in Berrigan’s production is played against an exposed-brick wall, the live scenes supplemented occasionally by clever video clips of media coverage of Geoffrey’s scandal. When naturalistic detail is called for — characters getting in and out of cars and opening doors — Berrigan efficiently conveys the information by simple light and sound cues.
This stripped-back quality works because the acting is so strong. Daws convinces totally as Geoffrey: Even as he dodges responsibility for his actions, we nonetheless feel empathy for a man who never quite intended to be famous and is increasingly hemmed in by the public eye. Webb is seductive and surprising as Jamie, who is not the menacing hoodlum nor the wronged innocent he seems at first and second glance. Both actors ably navigate the quick turns from brisk comedy to high emotion Jackson’s script requires.
Harman has less to get his teeth into but is nonetheless convincing as relentlessly self-interested Larry.
The play is largely a two-person, dialogue-driven work but is at its most amusing and absorbing in the long second-act scene when all three men are onstage. Jackson has a keen eye for slightly absurd and humanizing details, such as Jamie using oven mitts as a clapperboard in the repeated takes of Geoffrey’s filmed confession. A lone clanging misjudgment is the repeated graphic description of the sex act in which Geoffrey and Jamie were caught: Jackson seems to be trying too hard to shock for shock’s sake.
The play ultimately feels slight, but Jackson impresses as a writing talent to watch. Ditto Berrigan, as a director with taste and vision to spare.