by Joseph Vitale
Directed by Jeremy Williams
Featuring Joseph J. Menino
Phoenix Theater Ensemble @ The Wild Project, NYC
May 4, 2016 – May 22, 2016
As part of a 1950s McCarthy-era witch hunt theatrical extravaganza (perhaps with a nod uptown to Ivo van Hove’s revival of Arthur’s Millers The Crucible on Broadway) that is scheduled to include a reading of Eric Bentley‘s play assembled from HUAC testimony Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been, the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble presents a limited run of a new one-man show about Edward R. Murrow, perhaps the most important singular man of radio and television journalism of the early 20th century. This stalwart character, born in 1908 and dead by 1965, covered the development and denouement of World War Two in Europe (our show’s Act One) and endured and stood up to the political fear and intolerance of Senator Joseph McCarthy‘s House Un-American Activities Committee (our show’s Act Two). The play’s subjects are worthy and essential, Murrow’s life is full of drama and interest, but the play’s structure and this production sometimes diminish the theatrical impact.
Playwright Joseph Vitale, a journalist by training as our playbill tells us, provides his original sources in that same playbill, winning many research and authenticity points from this dramaturg. I am thrilled and wary in equal measures before the play starts. Will this work live on stage, with (or despite) its research bona fides? What animated impulse will it have? I’ve mused on the question of solo performance before, an art form and a genre I adore, in particular solo pieces crafted out the lives of non-fiction characters.
Structurally, the memoir-testimonial-biographical play can be assembled through answering a series of basic questions. We don’t want a litany of facts, but a narrative that has a theatrical shape—answers to some of these questions often offer that structure. Is there a pivotal life event, such as injury, or loss, or other trauma? Are there career transitions that can provide dramatic focus, as they did for Diana Vreeland in Full Gallop or 1938-era “box office poison” Katharine Hepburn pondering her future career, along with a looming hurricane, as a climatic first act closer in Tea at Five? Might there have been a long lingering final illness that led to a confession, or dramatic events like a threatened apartment eviction in the play Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein? Are there late life accolades that serve as a frame, such as the Chaplin biopic that used the honorary Academy Award? Or will the narrator simply speak to the audience as known spectators as in Mark Twain Tonight?
It’s about choices, some of which Vitale the dramatist doesn’t make. A sense of rhetorical timing is provided by the HUAC hearing era in the events themselves that inform only one of the play’s acts. The historical and dramatic climax of the Army-McCarthy Hearings toward the end of the multi-year hold the Senator and his fear mongers including professional opportunist Roy Cohn had on the American public’s attention, provides one such moment. The Army’s chief council Joseph Welch called an end to the Senator’s bullying of a young lawyer. “Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last?,” Welch asked the Senator in a nationally-televised moment. “Have you left no sense of decency?” Tony Kushner uses this moment to illustrate the differences in political awareness and perspectives between two lovers in Angels in America, when paralegal Louis confronts his befuddled (and historically clueless) closeted lover Joe with the fact of this trial, this line, and the role that Joe’s boss Roy Cohn played in the HUAC events. A line is drawn, history informs story-telling, and the story proceeds.
Vitale’s telling of Edward R. Murrow’s life utilizes Welch’s extraordinary lines among myriad other moments in a wash of stories, with too little dramatic paring. Sticking exclusively to the words of a select number of Edward R. Murrow’s speeches, pieces of journalism for radio and television and even his interview shows with celebrities would provide sufficient material for any piece of theater. Those various sources sufficiently and dramatically capture Murrow’s sense of language, of indignation, of historical self-awareness. He was after all a journalist, a writer, a capturer of moments, and spinner of true tales. Too many dramatic climaxes can exhaust rather than exhilarate.
Vitale’s script fails find singular dramatic arcs and fails explicitly to work with us as an audience, to establish our role in this story-telling adventure. Are we in the afterlife or attending a late-life lecture by Murrow or at an awards show or a meeting of some kind to justify the play’s direct address? Why are we watching this man, and why is he talking to us? The facts and speeches of Murrow himself are sufficiently riveting to claim and reclaim our attention, but it needs to be reclaimed each time Murrow stops talking or leaves the stage. When Murrow exits the stage at the end of the first act after sharing with us his April 1945 report from Buchenwald when the camp was liberated by Allied soldiers, the play could be over. There is nothing explicitly holding us in our seats other than the fact that we know Murrow lived through a number of additional important historical events.
Joseph J. Menino‘s evocation of Murrow seems at times more energized than the laconic Murrow we know from his televised appearances, but the actor is engaging and acquits himself admirably. It is a bit of a frustration that 21st-century auditorium rules prevent the use of cigarettes during this production as Murrow was famously a chain smoker. Despite Menino holding a cigarette from time to time and the existence of ash trays on the set, the absence of the mist of cigarette smoke as part of this story seems a loss to any telling of Murrow’s story.
The stripped-down main playing space designed by WT McCrae includes a number of paper-covered shapes, perhaps newsprint underneath the thin layer of paint. A large block doubles as desk and building roof when climbed upon, areas upstage and on furniture surfaces serve as projection screens, and an upstage lamp lit area features a comfortable chair that provides brief moments of repose for the Murrow. A microphone placed on the “desk” allows Murrow to broadcasts with ease, when the script careens from a direct address reminiscence to a live broadcast from the rooftops of London or the liberated concentration camps or a New York City CBS television studio. A typewriter from the wrong era rests on the otherwise quite bare “desk” throughout the show, though was never used. This prop pulls attention (for those of us old enough to remember) as it appears to be a electric typewriter from the 1950s or 1960s when an upright manual typewriter from an earlier era would have made far more sense for Murrow’s generation and the eras covered by the play. The video design by Pierre Depaz was at times confusing (why did were we looking at early computers in the first image sequence?) but generally illustrated the story telling.
The subject of Edward R. Murrow is rich, historically important, and dramatically fruitful. And yet, choices must be made. The 2005 90-minute Hollywood movie Good Night, and Good Luck focuses on the few weeks leading up to Murrow’s decision to broadcast his “take down” of Senator McCarthy’s witch hunt hearings. A similar streamlined selection of era for this portrait, providing a resonant focus rather than a “march of time” effect, might have enhanced this particular dramatization of an undeniably important and out-sized American life.
© Martha Wade Steketee (May 7, 2016)
Playwright | Joseph Vitale
Director | Jeremy Williams
Set Design | WT McCrae
Lighting Design | Kate Jarowski
Sound Design | Liz Stanton
Video Design | Pierre Depaz