|Esme Allen & Lewis D. Wheeler in "Muckrakers"|
For the first half or so of New Rep’s current production of “Muckrakers” by Zayd Dohrn, there’s a good deal of realistic dialogue between its two characters, Mira (Esme Allen) and Stephen (Lewis D. Wheeler). The acting, and direction (by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary), are first rate, but the play soon becomes tiresome as one waits for something more dramatic to occur. Since we don’t really know much about these people, their sexual sparring isn’t particularly interesting, and neither comes across as remotely likeable. Though it strains credulity at first, she has invited this man, whom she doesn’t know any better than we do, to a sleepover at her apartment; it seems her organization (which she describes as an “online agitprop news source”) has just given him a journalism award because he has leaked sensitive government info (a la Julian Assange). He’s more than a bit paranoid about being followed (perhaps justifiably), though he assures her it’s “nothing personal, I don’t trust anybody…I assume they’re watching me at all times”. After a considerable amount of naturalistic banter, the true priorities of the playwright begin to emerge. It’s all about personal privacy vs. the public’s right to know, and related issues, certainly timely in today’s world.
What they are not, despite the author’s convictions, are sufficiently developed arguments. There are a lot of allusions to openness (“It’s all becoming clear…transparent…visibility is the beginning of morality”). But though the play makes a pass at some major contemporary issues, it never really tackles them. It feels somewhat like a laundry list of power points, first obscured by sexual politics, ultimately revealed (via two personal “secrets”, one telegraphed) but even then not very compelling in the context of this play. Any significance one would attach to this work comes from the topicality of the issues as demonstrated by external current events. The technical contributions to this production are all worthy, from the Scenic Design by Alexander Grover (early eclectic agitprop décor), to the appropriate Costume Design by Tyler Kinney, to the effective Lighting Design by Christopher Brusberg and eerie Sound Design by Edward Young.
There is surely grist for the theatrical mill in the issue of personal privacy, but not here: It presents a concrete invasion of privacy in having the female lead urinate in sight of the male lead (at his request, not ours)…the ultimate Wikileak. It’s a graphic illustration of the work’s lack of subtlety. While an admirable effort by an obviously sincere playwright, in the end it’s not groundbreaking, just more agitflop.