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Review: New Drama About the Murdoch Phone Hacking Scandal | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #hacker


John Behlmann, Eleanor Handley, and Toby Stephens (from left) in Corruption. T. Charles Erickson

Corruption | 2hrs 40mins. One intermission. | Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater | 150 West 65th Street | 212-239-6200

Truth is on the line in Corruption, a recent-history play which dramatizes the News International phone hacking scandal that briefly threatened Rupert Murdoch’s empire, shut down one paper, and resulted in a pitiful handful of arrests and prison sentences. J.T. Rogers’s spin on verity is basic: the good guys believe in it, and the bad guys think it’s a commodity to be manipulated for profit. As a top Murdoch lawyer explains, “[T]he world that you are fighting for no longer exists. Government, privacy, truth: these are malleable now. To be changed, or discarded, as those above us see fit.” Not exactly news, but noted.

As a reporter (sorta), I therefore feel the burden of honesty: produced by Lincoln Center Theater, Corruption has a strong, versatile cast and worthy message, but a great play it is not. Rogers—a Tony winner for Oslo, also heavily researched—spoon-feeds the audience too much obvious exposition while starving his characters of nuance and vitality. This is the story of sometimes bumbling MP Tom Watson (Toby Stephens) taking down ice-cold media queen Rebekah Brooks (Saffron Burrows). He’s a blokey Saint George in a rumpled, mismatched suit and she’s the flame-haired dragon keeping a princess (that’s truth) in a cave. This match ought to be more thrilling than it is. 

Seth Numrich, Dylan Baker, and Saffron Burrows (from left) in Corruption. T Charles Erickson

Directed by Bartlett Sher with a large cast of American and British actors (all except Stephens and Burrows playing multiple roles), Corruption contains a great deal of tables and chairs wheeled into different configurations to represent offices, homes, and hearing rooms where the fast-moving scenes take place. A circular structure hung above the stage (sets by Michael Yeargen) contains monitors displaying pre-recorded and live video (by 59 Productions). It’s no surprise this piece began as a screenplay; the broad canvas and technological nature of the story would suit smash cuts and closeups. I’ve never seen so much mobile phone acting. In Shakespeare there’s the occasional, “To arms!” Or, in movies, “Get in the chopper!” Here folks bark, “Open your laptop” (twice), “Check your email,” or “Check your phone!” Sure, the plot hinges on blog posts and press briefings, but this is like a day in the office.

Essentially, it’s a spy tale: scrappy underdogs versus corporate vampires who lurk inside your phone and computer, ready to suck your data. Over two acts, Tom and his team—which includes single-mom and lawyer Charlotte (Sepideh Moafi), Independent reporter Nick (Sanjit De Silva), and Guardian journo Nick (T. Ryder Smith)—build a case that Brooks and her underlings at News of the World hired crooked private investigators to hack the voicemail of royals and celebrities—plus ordinary citizens, some of whom were wrongly outed as sex offenders. Since the press and political class in England are so deeply intertwined, the rot goes wide and high. A head cop at Scotland Yard slow-walks an investigation, ignoring key evidence; Watson gets a warning from ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair—via current PM Gordon Brown—to back off Murdoch. Yet there are heroes among the ruling class: Watson and Charlotte appeal to businessman Max Mosley (Michael Siberry, crusty and tart), to provide financial cover for people suing the News. Since Mosley was publicly humiliated by the tabloid—it published pictures taken at an orgy he hosted—the louche millionaire is keen to assist. Watson fights valiantly against Brooks in her newsprint castle, but he knows what it is to bully. As a Labour whip, he routinely verbally abused colleagues, including homophobic remarks directed at a gay MP (K. Todd Freeman) to raise votes for Brown. Brooks’s exposés of Watson’s political dirty tricks drives a wedge between him and his wife (Robyn Kerr), who just wants a normal life.

The cast of Corruption. T. Charles Erickson

Despite the occasional splash of gray (Watson exploits an especially damning charge against the News that he learns is untrue), Rogers daubs in black and white. Which means the villains ought to have the best lines and tempt us with glittering arguments. Brooks is a snobby parvenu whose name may as well be Voldemort—government officials skitter at the first mention of her. But she lacks the demonic force and eloquence to make her a latter-day Lambert Le Roux, the rapacious Murdoch stand-in of Howard Brenton and David Hare’s 1985 Fleet Street satire, Pravda. Such a figure ought to articulate why, for example, people haven’t a right to privacy and would rather be entertained than free. A late self-defense that tabloids essentially subsidize real journalism is neither convincing nor developed. We follow Rebekah’s earnest attempt to become a mother through a surrogate, but “fortyish woman wants a baby” is a lazy stab at empathy on Rogers’s part. Brooks simply ends up a hissable bitch, not even a perverse feminist figure. If the monster doesn’t have a personality, it’s the writer’s job to invent one. Also, regrettably, the role (however dull) could have used a bolder, zestier actress than the bland Burrows faking it better.  

Ensemble-wise, it’s a deep bench, with polished turns from Seth Numrich as an oily James Murdoch and Dylan Baker as a flinty lawyer, both doing the banality-of-evil soft shoe quite nimbly. But the hero of the day—in character and out—is Toby Stephens, who seems to be having fun as he carries this long and busy chronicle on his shoulders. Naturally charming and energetic, with inexhaustible Everylad comic appeal, Stephens uses considerable technique and charisma (he’s a London stage fixture) to fine effect, tossing off Rogers’s overstuffed dialogue and stilted diatribes with style, finding the humor and heart at every turn. Even if Corruption is a mixed bag, the real-life Watson must be pleased that after years of getting slagged off in the press, an admiring playwright prints the last word.

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Review: New Drama About the Murdoch Phone Hacking Scandal

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