Wednesday, March 10, 2010

History Lesson

Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers
A play by Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons

Directed by John Rubenstein

Starring Diane Adair, Larry Bryggman, John Getz, Jack Gilpin, James Gleason, Katrhyn Meisle, Matt McGrath, Larry Pine, Russell Soder, Peter Strauss, Peter Van Norden

February 24-March 28, 2010

New York Theater Workshop

79 East 4th Street

Recent—and still relevant—history is onstage in Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, which dramatizes the Washington Post’s then-neophyte publisher Katherine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee’s skirmishes with Nixon’s Justice Department in 1971 over the Post’s attempt to publish the damning history of how our government often illegally waged the Vietnam War.

At issue are several topics still ringing in our ears today, and which undoubtedly made the producers want to revive this radio play for the New York stage in 2010: freedom of the press, our dissembling political leaders and an engaged, enraged and skeptical citizenry. Parallels to our current situation in the Middle East are not coincidental.

The Oscar-nominated documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, shows how Ellsberg decided to leak the documents to the press to ensure that the truth got out. Top Secret, on the other hand, gives us the point of view of the newspaper heads while deciding whether to go ahead and publish (the New York Times, which published them first, were forced to cease by a court injunction).

It’s too bad, then, that Top Secret remains dramatically sketchy and static. That’s what happens when a radio play, with all its limitations, is put onstage. It’s also because authors Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons have a tendency to overplay their hand when attempting to dramatize events that are inherently undramatic, especially in several scenes among the Post’s editors and reporters that are rife with hackneyed dialogue. At one point, Bradlee (a slick, charming Peter Strauss) calls his boss (a lightweight Kathryn Meisle) a “gutsy broad”: he may have done so in real life, but it comes across as an unnecessary shortcut to actual characterization.

Overall, the play relies too much on gimmickry to belie its essential seriousness of purpose. There are many sequences when an actor or actress sits at a table and performs the various sound effects—doors being locked, suitcases being opened, drinks being poured—that are de rigueur for a radio play. But actors in radio plays—even if they read from scripts while speaking into the microphones, as they sometimes do here—probably wouldn’t be miming so many things like having drinks or reading from transcripts or talking on the telephone, and this produces an ungainly hybrid somewhere between the radio and the stage. Frankly, it doesn’t do much to further dramatize its important subject.

Director John Rubenstein’s cast is generally fine throughout, even if, like Strauss or Meisle, there’s a tendency to play too broadly—possibly another aspect of visualizing what’s really an aural experience. Ultimately, Top Secret would be a more persuasive and powerful history lesson with fewer gimmicks. originally posted on

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