New Rep Delivers Intense, Thought Provoking ‘Muckrakers’ (4.5 Stars)

‘Muckrakers’ – Written by Zayd Dohrn; Directed by Kathleen Bridget O’Leary; Presented by The New Repertory Theatre at 200 Dexter Avenue, Watertown through February 1st.

There was a time, not so long ago in America, when there was news on radio and television that actually followed some basic journalistic principles. But somewhere along the line those principles began to disappear one by one, until what we now have is a combination of infotainment and editorializing that largely supports the views of those who own the stations – namely a half-dozen corporations like Comcast/Universal, Disney, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. – rather than presenting unbiased information that enables people to make informed decisions.

Then came the internet and social media and everything was going to change. But as we see in The New Repertory Theatre’s excellent production of  Zayd Dohrn’s ‘Muckrakers’ , the erosion of journalistic principles and the need to advance one’s own agenda – no matter how noble (or ignoble) – often colors the truth. The play broadly examines the question of what government and corporate information should be made available to the public, but then more closely takes a look at how much of the private lives of the individuals instituting – and reporting on – public and corporate policy should be fodder for the news process. There is a fine line between in depth reporting and gossip, and as we see in ‘Muckrakers’, that line gets consistently blurred in all forms of media, leaving the public with a distorted (or more accurately, manipulated) view of reality. But the play is much more than that, as it’s also a character-driven and very human drama.

The story opens with Mira, an idealistic young activist/blogger and Stephen, a Julian Assange-style new journalist, drunkenly stumbling into her Brooklyn studio apartment after his speaking engagement in front of a group composed mostly of fawning aging lefties (Stephen’s assessment). His main goal appears to be to bed the girl, but she has her own agenda, namely gaining an understanding of the relationship between Stephen and the Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning-esque Andy Stanton, who is being held in government custody after leaking damaging videos, incident reports and the like from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

The pair engage in a kind of cat and mouse game where the 39-year old British charmer attempts to coax the younger (26) American woman into the sack, but she’s no pushover. What begins as a kind of seductive game slowly turns into a political thriller as the evening turns late and more details about the characters emerge.

Esme Allen strikes a masterful balance between a theoretically worshipful and naive young activist with a little-too-stereotypical progressive resume (Smith College grad/bisexual/barista) and a hard boiled and manipulative operator. She is particularly effective in the scenes where she makes a lightning shift from coquettish schoolgirl to banshee, such as when Stephen innocently mentions that she “doesn’t look Jewish” and she launches into a dogmatic screed where she essentially compares him to a brownshirt. Lewis D. Wheeler is terrific too, as the (justifiably) paranoid journalist, who, for all intents and purposes, may be engaging in the same type of manipulation that Mira tries to employ, only at a much higher level.

The play says a lot about the motivations that go into what makes one want to become a journalist in the first place, because while the public can’t make informed decisions without access to the truth, there is a bit of self-righteous power that goes into wanting to set things straight, and it’s not always fueled by a profound sense of justice.
The intimate setting of the New Rep Black Box theater is perfect for this performance, and set designer Alexander Grover does a brilliant job of creating a 20-something activist’s apartment with a painstaking level of detail. If you’re looking for edgy, intelligent theater, you don’t have to go to New York or even to the South End to find it, as it’s right here in Watertown.

This is the second season of the New Rep’s Black Box Festival, which last year brought us the brilliant ‘Imagining Madoff’ as well as the under-appreciated ‘Patterns of Life’ (which also starred Wheeler). Don’t miss this. (The play contains some not-so-brief nudity, so you might want to leave the easily offended and kids at home for this one.) For more info, go to: