It shouldn’t be news to anyone that there’s bias in the media, that the 24-hour news cycle has a huge impact on how thoroughly stories are reported (or not reported), or that old-school newspapermen and women are a dying breed. So it’s hard to walk out of Bernard Weinraub?s new play Above The Fold at the Pasadena Playhouse and feel what you’re supposed to feel — angry, or at the very least conflicted — about the sad state of the news media in the 21st century, the immediacy that breeds inaccuracy, and the bias in storytelling that?s been a part of journalism for better or for worse since Gutenberg invented the printing press. But maybe I’m just jaded.
Above The Fold, playing through Feb. 23, makes it clear from the get-go that we?re entering — sorry, have been in for at least a decade — a new era of journalism. The smart set design (by Jeffery Eisenmann) features a stage-size iPhone, a streaming big-screen TV, and a news crawl, all backed by a newspaper with a front page that can change images to reflect the scene, whether it?s a park bench or an office. This should be enough. But over and over the play takes jabs at the Internet, mostly using low blows that we?ve heard before (?It?ll last if Mark Zuckerberg buys us!? one editor jokes. ?Platforms! I hate that word, I think of subway stations”).
Above The Fold isn?t only playing to journalists. It also takes aim at racial tension in the workplace and in the courtroom — both the real courtroom and the court of public opinion. Taraji P. Henson (Person of Interest) plays Jane Wilson, a mid-career reporter at a paper that resembles playwright Weinraub?s former employer, The New York Times, who is sent to cover a congressional race in North Carolina instead of the overseas post she had been angling to get. One candidate, a district attorney played with Southern charm and smarminess by Mark Hildreth, is prosecuting a complicated rape charge involving a fraternity at a mostly white college — a case that loosely mirrors the 2006 Duke lacrosse team allegations.
Henson is convincing as Wilson, keeping cool under pressure and she has a playful, familiar, Jack Donaghy/Liz Lemon-type mentor relationship with her editor (Arye Gross). Despite the racist and sexist undertones of comments made in her presence, Henson channels restraint and only loses her temper in one powerful scene, when her buttons are pushed by the ?elite, white? frat boys and alleged rapists.
As Monique, the stripper-turned-victim-turned-cause-celebre, Pasadena Playhouse alum Kristy Johnson moves seamlessly through her character?s personality shifts (and endless wig changes). Though we initially suspect she may not be telling the whole truth, we ultimately want to believe in her as much as Jane does. It’s refreshing to see two strong African-American actresses in meaty, complex roles.
But for a show so concerned about the dying print medium, Above the Fold could use an editor. The second act is particularly bulky with needlessly drawn-out scenes. And in an awkward effort to tie up every loose end possible, Weinraub writes an overwrought reconciliation between the two women caught in the middle of a story. Above The Fold attempts to challenge our preconceptions about the modern news media’s slippery grasp of the truth, but it has little to say that even a casual viewer of the Daily Show doesn’t already know. B-