James Graham’s play “Ink,” which opened Wednesday at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre after a run in London, depicts the young Rupert Murdoch (Bertie Carvel) as he buys the failing Sun tabloid in 1969 and hires Larry Lamb (Jonny Lee Miller) to turn it around.
If you don’t already appreciate “Citizen Kane,” the unnecessary first act of “Ink” will make you marvel at Orson Welles’ economy and wit. Kane’s creation of a tabloid is fun, insightful and, most important, Welles tells the story quickly. Graham, on the other hand, shows Lamb handpicking each staff member, and each portrait of these hardened journos is a cliché.
Much more tiresome is Graham’s need to show how newspapers were printed in 1969. To re-create the printing process in front of our eyes, “Ink” is the second Broadway show this season, after “Hadestown,” to rip off Madonna’s “Metropolis”-inspired music video, “Express Yourself.” Are we celebrating the song’s 30th anniversary?
The actors do everything but rappel themselves up and over Bunny Christie’s multi-tier set (an obstacle course constructed from dirty old desks and toilets), but Rupert Goold’s flashy musical-comedy direction can’t disguise the fact that there’s no drama in the first act of “Ink.” The living Rupert Murdoch is a major figure in our culture, so there’s interest. Which is very different from drama.
These Fleet Street types sing (original music by Adam Cork) and dance (choreography by Lynne Page), which often reduces Miller and Carvel to presenting cheerleader versions of these two power brokers. Miller’s Lamb nearly does cartwheels in his enthusiasm to direct his staff to go low to increase the paper’s circulation. Carvel attempts to replicate Murdoch’s hangdog face and hunched posture, but simply looks uncomfortable throughout. He may soon need a chiropractor. The two actors’ most effective moments are when they’re alone together at a dinner table and Goold turns off the busy musical comedy around them. For a real look at a hardened capitalist, check out Tracy Letts in the Arthur Miller revival “All My Sons” playing a few blocks south.
In her lengthy essay “Raising Kane,” Pauline Kael criticizes “Citizen Kane” for having a lone reporter track the Rosebud story. Graham’s use of the Lamb character is far more absurd. This editor-in-chief directs TV commercials, hires lowly models and singlehandedly does everything but deliver the Sun to readers’ doorsteps.
A particularly awkward scene in “Ink” re-creates the Sun’s most lurid covers. In the one depicting the 1969 U.S. moon landing, an actor moons the audience. Clever.
Act 2 is an improvement because a story finally emerges. A Sun executive’s wife is kidnapped and Lamb plays it up big in the newspaper. Later, he introduces nudity into its pages. Granted, it’s 1969, but Penthouse magazine was already a huge breakout hit in the U.K. Graham and Goold, however, treat this episode as if Lamb had ordered a snuff film to be shot. Neil Austin’s lighting design turns crepuscular. Jon Driscoll’s projection design has black ink pouring down the back of the stage. Almost every scene ends with a shotgun punctuation (sound design by Adam Cork) to induce that sinister action-movie trailer feel. And phoniest of all, Lamb and Murdoch experience grave moral qualms as they grieve over the nude model’s tarnished reputation. Really? Again, go see Letts’ unsentimental portrait of an unapologetic uber-capitalist. You’ll discover how monsters really behave.
To use a newspaper term, “Ink” is a puff piece.