WHEN | WHERE Through June 23, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
INFO From $79; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com
BOTTOM LINE A fascinating look at how Rupert Murdoch went about building his media empire.
What do readers want? The question has come up every so often (OK, almost once a day) in my long career as a newspaper journalist. And it’s certainly one that Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch agonized over in the early days of building his vast empire.
Those days are chronicled in James Graham's "Ink," an engrossing play that just transferred from London's West End to the Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. If ever a story was ripped from the headlines, it's this one. The show traces Murdoch’s 1969 purchase of the circling-the-drain British tabloid The Sun, the editing duties of which he immediately turns over to Larry Lamb, a second-string editor poached from a small Manchester daily. Perversely, he gives him one year to turn things around: Reverse the dwindling circulation enough to overtake the nation's most popular publication, The Mirror.
It’s challenging to review a play that lays bare the inner workings of your profession. Will anyone care about the intricacies of coming up with the perfect front-page layout or the machinations of creating a lead printing plate for the nightly press run? Turns out in the right hands, it's all kind of fascinating, especially when you add in spot-on, mile-a-minute performances from Bertie Carvel (Murdoch) and Jonny Lee Miller (Lamb). Besides, as the two men on a mission frequently point out, it’s a darn good story (that being the primary answer to the question we started with).
It all plays out on Bunny Christie's impressive set, desks piled on top of each other to replicate a busy newsroom, enhanced by Jon Driscoll's projections showing presses running full speed or close-ups of some of the more scintillating pages. The large cast, directed with an energizing touch of theatrical fantasy by Rupert Goold, does a fine job portraying the assorted editors and writers employed by The Sun, though their occasional breaking into song is a touch unrealistic in my world (unless you count the annual holiday party). Still, it’s interesting that a brainstorming session about what drives readers comes up with answers all too familiar in our current environment — gossip, celebrities, sports, television, and let's not forget the royal family.
Lamb eventually realizes none of that will be enough to beat The Mirror, so he goes low to establish a tradition that remained until just a few years ago — running photos of topless women on Page 3. Surprisingly, Murdoch doesn’t approve, but he has other things on his mind. Seems there's an American TV station he’s interested in.