‘Corruption’ Off Broadway Review: Rupert Murdoch Gets Away With It – Again

J.T. Rogers’ new play has a few terrible things to say about tabloid journalism

Sanjit De Silva and Toby Stephens in "Corruption"
Sanjit De Silva and Toby Stephens in "Corruption" (Credit: T. Charles Erickson)

Rupert Murdoch doesn’t appear on stage, but he gets snapped on the backside by a wet towel of a play that does his rep little harm. J.T. Rogers’ “Corruption” had its world premiere Monday at LCT’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater.

The two-act play runs two hours 45 minutes and tells the big, sprawling story of how Labour Party politician Tom Watson (Toby Stephens) tried to bring down Murdoch’s News International in the phone-hacking scandal that went to trial in 2014. Rogers doesn’t need to give us Murdoch in the flesh on stage because he has a much better villain in Rebekah Brooks (Saffron Burrows). Women make the best bad guys, and as the tough-as-nails, ball-busting editor of “News of the World,” Brooks would be twirling her mustache if she could grow one.

There are shades of “Succession” when Murdoch’s son James (Seth Numrich) appears so Brooks can call him a Nepo Baby. Like that TV series, “Corruption” is delivered in lots of short scenes, but since it is a play and Rogers needs to get his actors off the stage, he gives them an explosive button or some pithy aphorism to help do the job. A rampant punchiness soon begins to infect the whole enterprise.

Completely shameless is the end of the first act when Watson, who has had little success in bringing down Rupert and Rebekah, sees a supportive tweet from George Michael. It gives him cause to celebrate and the excuse to play one of the pop singer’s hit songs. There’s nothing like “Freedom” to send an audience up the aisles to the bar and the restrooms at intermission.

“Corruption” is based on Watson and Martin Hickman’s 2012 book, “Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain.” Clearly a title like “Dial M for Murdoch” is too trashy for the high-minded lesson Rogers wants to teach us. In a Playbill program note, he writes about “scenes that are invented whole cloth,” and this play makes the current “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans” look like an exercise in total veracity.

But getting back to the play’s punchiness. The director Bartlett Sher has either allowed or pushed his ensemble of 14 actors to overact egregiously. In part, all that shouting and gesticulating is needed to deliver those aforementioned buttons and aphorisms. In part, it’s the problem of actors playing far too many roles. Some of them have to essay half a dozen roles, and the result is the delivery of gross caricatures.

Occasionally, the result is downright baffling. The actor John Behlmann is introduced as Brooks’ new husband, only to show up later as a journalist at a rival newspaper. You might wonder if the couple got a quickie divorce, and the ex-husband wants to stick it to his ex-wife by jumping to the competition. T. Ryder Smith has more success going from a star investigative reporter to a lawman on the take. Most convincing is Dylan Baker. His soft-spoken “News of the World” lawyer lives in a completely different world from his totally sleazy “News of the World” phone hacker.

Elsewhere, the actors can be excused for their demonstrative performances — because Rogers hasn’t written them any characters to play. “Corruption” is populated with nothing but cartoon figures. Watson’s wife (Robyn Kerr, who also gets to play the surrogate carrying the Brooks’ baby, as well as a mother whose dead child’s cellphone has been hacked by “News of the World”) is a dreary woman who sobs throughout the play, begging her husband to give up his fight for justice to spare their six-year-old son from being threatened and harassed. Despite everything she’s been yammering about for nearly three hours, this recalcitrant wife gets a Frank Capra makeover at the very end to become her husband’s biggest cheerleader in taking down the Murdoch empire. 

Another cornball speech follows when Watson delivers a barnstormer that would embarrass even Jimmy Stewart’s naïve politician in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”


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