Off-Broadway Review: CORRUPTION (Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center)

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by Paola Bellu on March 18, 2024

in Theater-New York


Welcome to Rupert Murdoch’s wicked, treacherous media empire where everybody is under surveillance and can be potentially blackmailed. It’s the oldest trick in the book of dirty politics; knowing other people’s private secrets is essential to wielding corrupt power. Adapted by J.T. Rogers (Oslo, Blood and Gifts) from Tom Watson and Martin Hickman’s book Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and The Corruption of Britain, Corruption is a docudrama that unveils the scandal of the phone and computer hacking, spying and bribing done by Murdoch’s newspapers in England, ending in the 2011 infamous trial that sent shockwaves across British politics.

Toby Stephens as Tom Watson

Directed by Bartlett Sher for Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theater, the play — which opened last Monday — gives us important facts, a lot of them, but fails in showing us the complex human nature of its many characters, so they end up being a bit flat and predictable. It’s a difficult story involving many important people that doesn’t have the time to develop each role as did the similar-themed TV series Succession (fictionalized, but based on the Murdoch empire).

The Cast of Corruption

We start with Rebekah Brooks’s wedding where we see among the guests current and future Prime Ministers David Cameron and Gordon Brown (Anthony Cochrane, excellent as the charming concerned politician). Although Brooks was only the editor of trashy newspapers, the PMs’ attendance gives us an idea of her power over both sides of Parliament. Brooks, played by Saffron Burrows with cold-blooded confidence, is Murdoch’s favorite editor who plays dirty to keep millions of readers engaged by abusing subjects such as pedophilia and murder; favoring the propagation of witch-hunts; publishing fake, degrading stories about politicians to get them to kneel; and turning false rumors into major news topics.

Seth Numrich, Dylan Baker and Saffron Burrows

The plot turns into a battle of Biblical proportions when Tom Watson (an intense Toby Stephens), one of the politicians victimized by Brooks, starts fighting back. He finds out that News of the World’s journalists illegally acquired the phone messages of celebrities, politicians, police department heads, private citizens, and even crime victims. With the help of journalists Martin Hickman from The Independent (a very bubbly Sanjit De Silva) and Nick Davies from The Guardian (T. Ryder Smith, all soul and spine); lawyer Charlotte Harris (Sepideh Moafi, all heart); politician Chris Bryant (a dignified, powerful K. Todd Freeman); and extravagant rich donor Max Mosley (vengefully amusing Michael Siberry), they uncover enough dirt to expose Brooks’s antics, while enduring extensive intimidation that would have made most of us give up at the very beginning.

Sanjit De Silva as Martin Hickman and Toby-Stephens

Dylan Baker successfully doubles as the elegant, morally rotten attorney and the sleazy investigator, opposite characters working for Murdoch; Eleanor Handley plays it tough as The New York Times writer Jo Becker, a good embodiment of the Grey Lady; while Brooks’s husband Charlie (an amiable John Behlmann), Watson’s worried wife Siobhan (Robyn Kerr, who also plays the suspicious surrogate who is carrying the Brooks’ child,) and Murdoch’s son James (Seth Numrich) represent the human side of the main characters, maybe a little stereotyped and, at times, unneeded.

John Behlmann, Eleanor Handley and Toby Stephens

Information comes to us from the spoken text, a ring of screens placed above the stage, and a projection backdrop, all gracefully designed by Michael Yeargan. Stage crew members roll the modular conference-room tables to arrange the different sets, and masterful projections by 59 Productions/Benjamin Pearcy and Brad Peterson give us close-ups of the actors in meaningful moments. Justin Ellington‘s sound includes news snippets and jingles, never too loud to distract us, perfectly combined with the acting.

Anthony Cochrane and Toby Stephens

As usual, crimes that touch politicians, policemen, or billionaires rarely get justice, and Corruption has all three categories represented.  Nobody really paid for their wrongdoings; Brooks received a hefty check to step down, and is now back to work; Murdoch still owns most of the commercial media outlets, and continues to be a shameless kingmaker; and we are still living in the post-truth era where facts are unfortunately viewed as irrelevant. Corruption is a parable for our times and the scenario it depicts may be made worse with the advent of AI and other developments in the news cybersphere. This too-timeless cautionary tale of not-so-long-ago events is a tale that, sadly, never ages.

[Editor’s Note: This just in. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg created the Woman of Leadership Award, honoring “women who exemplify human qualities of empathy and humility.” Last week, the Dwight D. Opperman Foundation — which organizes the awards — revealed that this year it would honor Rupert Murdoch, Elon Musk, Michael Milken, Martha Stewart, and Sylvester Stallone. What the felon is going on? Because of opposition, Opperman announced today that this year’s awards ceremony, which was scheduled for April, is canceled.]

photos by T. Charles Erickson

Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center
ends on April 14, 2024
for tickets, visit LCT

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