×

Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers

Nixon-era radio drama has a lot going for it.

With:
Meg Greenfield - Diane Adair Katharine Graham - Kathryn Meisle Ben Bradlee - Peter Strauss

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.

Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers

New York Theater Workshop; 199 seats; $65 top

Production: A New York Theater Workshop, LA Theaterworks and Affinity Collaborative Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons. Directed by John Rubinstein.

Creative: Set, David Lander; costumes, Holly Poe Durbin; lighting, Lander; sound, Lindsay Jones; Foley, Diane Adair and Russell Soder; production stage manager, Jennifer Grutza. Opened March 9, 2010. Reviewed March 5. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.

Cast: Meg Greenfield - Diane Adair Katharine Graham - Kathryn Meisle Ben Bradlee - Peter StraussWith: Larry Bryggman, John Getz, Jack Gilpin, James Gleason, Matt McGrath, Larry Pine, Peter Van Norden, Russell Soder.

More Legit

  • The American Clock review

    London Theater Review: 'The American Clock'

    Time is money. Money is time. Both come unstuck in “The American Clock.” Arthur Miller’s kaleidoscopic account of the Great Depression, part autobiography, part social history, crawls through the decade after the Wall Street crash, dishing up snapshots of daily life. In the Old Vic’s classy revival, director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) tunes into the play’s [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Off Broadway Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Sea Wall/A Life'

    Comfy? Okay, let’s talk Death: sudden death, painful death, lingering death, accidental death, and whatever other kinds of death happen to come into the receptive minds of playwrights Simon Stephens (“Sea Wall”) and Nick Payne (“A Life”). The writing in these separate monologues — playing together on a double bill at the Public Theater — [...]

  • Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    With an HBO documentary that places strong allegations of abuse against Michael Jackson premiering in two weeks, the late singer’s estate announced Thursday that it’s canceling a scheduled Chicago test run of a jukebox musical about him. The estate and its producing partner in the musical, Columbia Live Stage, said that they’re setting their sights on going [...]

  • All About Eve review

    West End Review: Gillian Anderson and Lily James in 'All About Eve'

    To adapt a crass old adage: it’s “All About Eve,” not “All About Steve.” Stripping Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s sharp-witted screenplay about a waning theater star of its period trappings, Ivo van Hove’s stage adaptation fine-tunes its feminism for our own sexist age — image-obsessed, anti-aging, the time of Time’s Up. Rather than blaming Lily James’ [...]

  • Adam Shankman

    Listen: Why Adam Shankman Directs Every Movie Like It's a Musical

    Director Adam Shankman’s latest movie, the Taraji P. Henson comedy “What Men Want,” isn’t a musical. But as one of Hollywood’s top director-choreographers of musicals and musical sequences, he approaches even non-musicals with a sense of tempo. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “When I read a script, it processes in my head like a [...]

  • Matthew Bourne's 'Cinderella' Review

    L.A. Theater Review: Matthew Bourne's 'Cinderella'

    How much can you change “Cinderella” before it is no longer “Cinderella”? In the case of choreography maestro Matthew Bourne — who, it should be said, first unveiled his spin on the classic folk tale some 22 years ago — the music is most certainly “Cinderella” (Prokofiev’s 1945 score, to be exact), but the plot [...]

  • 'Pinter Seven' Review: Martin Freeman Stars

    West End Review: 'Pinter Seven' Starring Martin Freeman

    “Pinter at the Pinter” has been an education — a crash course in Britain’s greatest post-war playwright. Director-producer Jamie Lloyd’s star-studded, six-month sprint through Harold Pinter’s short plays and sketches has been exquisitely curated and consistently revelatory. Not only has Lloyd tuned audiences into the writer’s technique, his unconventional groupings have exposed a load of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content