Saturday, January 31, 2015

Ripped from the headlines at the New Rep

Esme Allen and Lewis D. Wheeler in Muckrakers. Photo: Andrew Brilliant.

I'd never argue that Muckrakers (at the New Rep through this weekend) is a perfect play - but it's still the kind of script we need to see more of.  Zayd Dohrn's one-act is clearly modeled on the exploits of Julian Assange, the besieged "editor-in-chief" of Wikileaks, which in 2010 published the largest data dump of classified material ever leaked from the US military (the cache included the now-notorious "Collateral Murder" video, which Wikileaks claimed depicted US soldiers intentionally targeting Iraqi civilians and journalists).  

The leaker was one Private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, a troubled Army intelligence analyst who was struggling with sexual identity and gender issues while working 14-hour shifts in a bunker in Iraq. In his isolation Manning had been interacting for weeks with unidentified Wikileaks personnel by encrypted chat - but it was only when he claimed credit for his leaks in exchanges with another hacker that he was arrested and tried on various charges, the most serious being "aiding the enemy." Many argued at the time that no clear enemy was in fact aided by his leaks, which for the most part only embarrassed the United States - indeed, some observers have pointed out that a few of his leaked cables sparked protests which coalesced into the Arab Spring. Nevertheless, prior to his trial Manning found himself held in solitary confinement in a 6-ft-wide windowless room, under conditions widely regarded as inhumane. Now identifying as "Chelsea," he was eventually found guilty on all counts, and is currently serving a 35-year sentence in Ft. Leavenworth (he is eligible for parole in 8 years, and has sued for gender re-assignment surgery - a portrait "as he would wish to be seen" is below).

A portrait of Chelsea Manning by Alicia Neal
Julian Assange, for his part, was technically protected from prosecution as long he was merely a passive conduit for the leaks. The relevant chat logs - which came to light at Manning's trial - were inconclusive as to the identity of his Wikileaks interlocutor (and Manning would not reveal it, if in fact he knew it). Of course Assange's apparent belief that he could dodge retribution proved naïve; the Obama administration quickly began to prepare a case against him, and reports circulated of a sealed indictment - but before that effort came to a head, Assange was dogged by accusations of sexual molestation (technically "non-consensual behavior within a consensual sexual encounter") from two women in Sweden. To avoid these charges, he sought political asylum at the Ecuadoran embassy in London - and he's still holed up there, a virtual prisoner (below).

From these suggestive facts playwright Dohrn has spun a fairly taut little two-hander, in which "Stephen" (Lewis D. Wheeler) a high-flying Assange-like activist, spends a fraught night with the nubile "Mira" (Esme Allen), who runs her own "agit-prop news source" dedicated to full disclosure.  Mira is hosting Stephen after a gala for some edgy journalism nonprofit because - well, because said organization couldn't afford a hotel room. But it's clear from the moment the couple enters her grungy digs - with Stephen practically staggering in his loose tux, while she's all cool command in a shimmering sheath - that Mira has her own private agenda.  Of course Stephen has one, too - like Assange in Sweden (if you believe the allegations) - he wouldn't object to a little groupie sex.  But with one false move over the course of the conversation with his romantic quarry, he knows he could face charges over his interactions with the gay Andy Stanton, the Bradley-Manning factotum now imprisoned for leaking classified documents to his organization.

Assange at the window of London's Ecuadoran embassy in 2012. He's still there.
It's a neat set-up, and Dohrn skillfully diagrams the political positions that define his two characters. Even while horny (and possibly culpable), Stephen still conveys a mature and sympathetic awareness of the fact that even crusaders have their contradictions, and that absolute disclosure isn't something that anybody wants (or that society could withstand). Mira, meanwhile, evinces a kind of blind millennial faith in absolute openness and total 'accountability.' What Dohrn doesn't do, however, is endow Mira with the psychological depth to explain this fixation; he gives her a back-story, yes - which might be enough at the multiplex, but isn't quite enough on the stage. Nor does he conjure much guilty drama from the possibility that "Stephen" did, indeed, play on his informant's loneliness to seduce him into leaking those documents.

This leaves the actors, and director Bridget Kathleen O'Leary, in a bit of a quandary, it's true. Still, I think O'Leary might have drawn a more disturbed psychological aura from the talented Esme Allen, whose Mira is perhaps too consistently all clipped confidence; we should, instead, feel unspoken issues banging around within her at various junctures. Wheeler has the easier role on that score, and generally inhabits it believably - although I felt even he could have done with an extra dram of sleaze sloshing around in his performance, some hint of a shiftiness deeper than that of the typical horny celebrity.

That said, I can't help but applaud O'Leary (and the New Rep) for mounting this bracing script at all (and kudos to the cast for going the distance when it comes to the disrobing that goes with all that disclosure). To my mind, plays like this should be being dashed off all the time, almost like songs, and mounted with the urgency of a telegram from the front.  For in these troubled times, perhaps the politics are the thing, not the inner psychology - indeed, perhaps it's a form of critical cowardice to not face up to that. And Dohrn - who was raised by members of the Weather Underground! - certainly knows his way around political irony and issues of "direct action." So I look forward to hearing more from him, and of course more from Ms. O'Leary (whose production of Pattern of Life last fall was another memorable political statement) - as well as her admirably committed cast.

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