It’s a little shocking how quickly stories about investigative journalism for a (gasp!) newspaper have come to feel quaint, a victim of how completely we’ve embraced all things digital and accepted the “death” of print media. Investigative journalism isn’t dead, but the newspaper world in 2007 – the creative and safe haven for many of the characters in On The Head of a Pin, a new play written and directed by Frank Winters currently running at 59E59 Theaters – is one that, even if not completely gone, already seems lifted from a previous era. Add to that an investigation that centers on torture taking place in U.S.-operated prisons in Iraq in 2003 and the play winds the audience through lessons of our recent history: what we lose in order to win. These are lessons, though, that are not quaint and the show may ultimately suffer from its audience’s still-current relationship to these matters of recent past. Still, On The Head of a Pin is a well-written, well-acted show of much promise that, ultimately, succumbs to trying to do too much, to tell too many stories, to a 3-hour run time.
The play begins in 2004, when Sarah Kennedy accepts a job from the private military contractor, Caliban Corp., to serve as, she believes, a translator between the prisoners and their jailors. Once, there, Sarah soon learns that being nice, trusting and mousy is not the most effective way to coerce intelligence out of prisoners and that, in fact, she is being indoctrinated into a prison system that makes free use of torture to meet their ends. Sarah is sickened by what she sees, but cannot bring herself to leave the job, since her husband needs the health insurance to undergo cancer treatments back in the States. Instead she enlists the help of one of the guards, Russell Clark, to help her steal the pictures and videos the interrogators are taking Abu Ghraib-style and blackmail the prison administrator, Kathleen Crane, into ending the torture and releasing a prisoner she believes is innocent.
Intercut with these scenes is the story of Lily Strauss, a disgraced journalist working for the New York Guardian, who, 3 years later, is contacted by a source who has all of the pictures and videos of the torture in the Iraqi prison. Strauss sees this story as the one that will clear her name and take down Caliban, Along with her colleague, Harry Sullivan, Strauss follows the money, the paperwork and the people to try to uncover the truth, while mentoring (and eventually falling for) her young intern, Gwen Post. However, in this case, the truth will not necessarily set you free and the closer Lily gets to what happened at the prison, the more Caliban and, eventually, the U.S. Government want to keep this story from seeing the light of day.
The acting is a real strength. Sofia Lauwers is fantastic as Lily Strauss, making the journalist’s single-minded focus on solving the mystery the audience’s as well. Jason Ralph is likably smarmy as the Caliban employee in charge of staffing the prisons with unwitting torturers. Jen Tullock, as Kathleen Crane, is so much fun to watch, a machine gun of matter-of-fact manipulation of the clearly vulnerable Sarah Kennedy (Emily Fleischer). James Ortiz’s set does a great job allowing each of the worlds a place on the stage and Ortiz is also strong as Jon Lowe, the new editor of the paper tasked with handling his publication and Lily. In fact, much of this cast, though most of them noticeably younger than their characters would be, do really great work with this complex, interwoven story. Winters’ seems able to direct his own work, with the story always being clear, which is not the easiest task for a tale so sprawling as this one.
And the writing is really good – there’s just way too much of it. Winters is clearly smart. He writes snappy, clever repartee and seems to have an intellectual hold over the complex worlds of American newspaper journalism in the early-21st century and U.S. government/private corporation bed-sharing. What he really needs to work on, though, is what to tell and what to leave out. On The Head of a Pin is essentially three one-hour plays. There is the play about Sarah Kennedy’s experience in Iraq. There’s the play about Lily Strauss’ investigation. Both of these are tight genres that run on plot and thrive when the audience gets the information they need and then moves on. Finally, there’s the play about Lily’s interpersonal relationships with all of the political thriller-ness serving as the backdrop. Too often, Winters lets scenes linger well past when the important plot information has been delivered in order to get in some character details and leaves the audience thinking, “What am I watching? Is this a mystery, a thriller or a melodrama?” each of which have their own rules that, when ignored, muddy the waters and temper our enjoyment of all of the good stuff that this play brings to the stage. If everything is tighter, then Winters would have to focus his talents to really bring his show to a powerful conclusion, rather than letting it drift into port.
On The Head of a Pin really does bring a lot worth seeing. Line-to-line, this is some impressively good writing and, moment-to-moment, this show has some great acting. It’s just that its excess, by the end, takes much of the gleam off what’s good. I would love to see what this show were like at 2-hours instead of 3. I suspect I’d be talking about the play – the fine writing, directing and acting – more and the running time, hopefully, not at all.