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Photo: T. Charles Erickson Review
J.T. Rogers has long proved he’s capable of making compelling drama out of yesterday’s headlines, most notably in his multi-award-winning play “Oslo,” and he’s done so again with “Corruption,” now at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theatre.

Moreover, the nearly three-hour drama has the added bonus that its story, which centers on the famous phone hacking scandal that rocked the UK in 2011, often feels just as relevant today. After all, it’s pretty clear that social media sites like Facebook are somehow listening in on every conversation you’ve had, whether on the telephone or not.

Yet, despite the play’s virtues, the superb work of a truly stunning ensemble led by the brilliant British veterans Toby Stephens and Saffron Burrows (both of whom rarely perform in the U.S.) and the swiftly paced, razor-sharp direction of Bartlett Sher, “Corruption” isn’t the easiest show to recommend to all audiences.

For one thing, the large cast of characters (all played by 13 actors, most of whom essay multiple roles) are sometimes extremely hard to keep track of, as are some of its subplots. Indeed, the play works best when it focuses on its protagonist, Tom Watson (Stephens), who was notorious for being an “enforcer” for former UK prime minister Gordon Brown, a position that led to personal attacks of a seemingly libelous and decidedly unpleasant nature from British tabloid, The Sun.

In their aftermath, he seeks to leave public life entirely but agrees to Brown’s proposal that he become a member of the supposedly sleepy Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, where he can keep his head down and his mouth shut. But when the Committee learns the Sun’s sister paper, “News of the World,” also run by the steely editor Rebekah Brooks (Burrows), is being accused of hacking the phones of thousands of British citizens, the quick-tempered Watson goes on the offensive. And while Watson may initially be out for revenge, it also becomes quickly clear he is a true advocate for truth, justice and, ok, the British way, no matter the personal cost – especially to his marriage.

One of the most interesting thing about “Corruption” is that the deck of players is frequently shuffled and reshuffled. Surprisingly, Watson’s allies end up include two fellow journalists, tougher-than-nails Nick Davies (T. Ryder Smith) and sweet-but-smart Martin Hickman (Sanjit de Silva), single-minded lawyer Charlotte Harris (an impressive Sepideh Moah), her very wealthy if morally questionable client Max Mosley (a superb Michael Siberry), and MP Chris Bright (the always excellent K. Todd Freeman) with whom Watson has long had a less-than-cordial personal relationship.

On the other side, Rebekah’s strongest advocate is the Sun’s never-seen top dog Rupert Murdoch, whose instructions are delivered via his shrewd lawyer Tom Crone (Dylan Baker, wonderful as always). Less loyalty is shown to Murdoch’s son James (Seth Numrich), who is totally focused on keeping parent corporation News Corp’s share price up, largely so the company can purchase the entirety of broadcast network BSkyB.

Like with many a good British whodunit, a lot of “Corruption” hinges on the question of who knew what (and when), especially Brooks. She fiercely defends the questionable tactics of tabloids, long considered common practice in England, reminding us that those papers are the moneymakers that allow all media to flourish. Yet Rogers shrewdly creates more than reasonable doubt that Brooks played any personal part in this particular scandal.

Did you get all that? Fortunately, the clever projections by 59 projections, which augment Michael Yeargan’s minimal yet effective set of rolling desks, do a lot of the work for us, re-creating TV broadcasts, newspaper headings and blog entries. Still, Corruption” is the kind of theatrical work which requires constant attention on the viewer’s part to reap its benefits, so if you’re the sort who nods off, stay home.

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 3/11/2024
Closing 4/14/2024

Theatre Info
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023