The depressing opportunism that takes on a life of its own in James Graham’s drama “Ink,” is largely embodied by the set design as conceptualized in Round House Theatre’s production, c–produced with Olney Theatre Center. Scenic designer Tony Cisek and projection designer Mike Tutaj emerge as star players here. They have a firm handle on the essence of the tabloid world. In what seems a nod to both surrealism and pop art, they create a set that points to the baser and more cynical instincts of humankind while maintaining a sense of deliberately discordant quirkiness. The set helps the play to realize the utter comedy of this drama that speaks volumes about how sensationalistic journalism came to be and why it still has such a stronghold on society.
…a masterful job…The creative team steals the show in many ways…Loewith’s ability to coax performances that are so completely multifaceted and raw from this cast is inspired.
Graham’s Tony-nominated play made its debut in London in 2017, with its Broadway debut in 2019. It follows a blip in time in the early career of Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch (Andrew Rein) had just purchased The Sun, a struggling British paper that had otherwise very little hope of survival. He puts Larry Lamb (a compelling performance by Cody Nickell) in charge and tasks him with turning the paper around—not only that, but making it the bestselling tabloid in Britain within one year. The play follows that one year, with the question “what won’t Larry do to succeed in this endeavor?” recurrently presenting itself. It is the answer to this question that makes for some very gritty drama and some very disheartening realizations about what certain people will actually do for success…and money.
By now, there are few people who haven’t caught at least one or two episodes of “Succession,” the Brian Cox-led series that is loosely based on Rupert Murdoch and his family. It just goes to show that Murdoch’s life really is fodder for so much drama and entertainment. While in “Ink,” Murdoch is not the center of the theatrical world per se, his heavy hand, legendary cutthroat reputation, and the (un)bearable weight of his money are ever present in every scene, underlining just about every bit of dialogue.
When Lamb sinks to the level of publishing The Sun with a “Page Three Girl,” Murdoch’s one-year challenge is front and center. When Beverly (a refreshing Zion Jang), the otherwise shy and awkward cameraperson, becomes increasingly confident taking risqué photos of women, we see that Murdoch’s lesson has been intuited. When the paper stoops to the unbelievable depths of publishing an exclusive about the tragic kidnapping of the wife of one of their own, Murdoch’s fainthearted resistance seems but a bit of lip service. It’s what he doesn’t say that pulls the strings.
Round House does a masterful job with this production. The creative team steals the show in many ways on this one. From Cisek’s and Tutaj’s scenic design to the seeming juxtaposition of “good and evil” as symbolized by Minjoo Kim’s strategic light design and costume designer Debra Kim Sivigny’s vintage choices with a contemporarily relevant edge, the audience becomes immersed in this rather seedy, morally-bereft world whether they want to or not.
It would seem that director Jason Loewith’s greatest challenge here was to find a way to create at least a few moments of light, moments during which theatregoers could conceivably sympathize with this cast of characters. Loewith’s ability to coax performances that are so completely multifaceted and raw from this cast is inspired. Awesta Zarif as Stephanie Rahn, the hesitant Page Three Girl, shines as the would-be moral center who is also ultimately swayed by the lure of more money and the hope of a better life. Craig Wallace as Hugh Cudlipp, the editor of The Daily Mirror, is every bit as culpable as some of the others in this money-grab, free-for-all, Fleet Street universe, but pulls out an unexpected likability on occasion that makes his character seem a larger, more important part of this production than perhaps he was meant to have. The impressive cast is rounded out by Walter Riddle, Ryan Rilette, Todd Scofield, Sophia Early, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Chris Genebach, Michael Glenn, and the delightfully droll and feisty Kate Eastwood Norris.
“Ink” can be difficult to watch at times, despite its more uproarious comic moments. It is a reminder of how it can often be impossible to escape what is perhaps one of the biggest motivators of humankind—greed. This production will definitely make you think, and perhaps rethink some of your own life choices.
Running time: Two hours and 50 minutes with one intermission.
Advisory: Strong language, sexual references, adult behavior, and violent themes.
“Ink” runs through September, 24, 2023 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814. For more information and to purchase tickets, call the Box Office at 240.644.1100, Monday-Friday, 11 am-5 pm or click here. Masks are required at the following performances: September 19, 23 (matinee).