The Fourth Estate
nytheatre.com review by Lynn Berg
August 18, 2010
The hot subject of The Fourth Estate plays like news stories brought to life from the point of view of the journalists who risk all. The four vignettes take place in very different parts of the globe but they're all about the journalists' decisions, difficulties, and sacrifices. "The Rookie" is about a hardened veteran photojournalist trying to protect a novice reporter from his own righteous instincts in war-torn Afghanistan. "Kowawoyo" tells the true story of two American journalists sentenced to years of hard labor in a North Korean prison for spying. Set in St. Louis, "Johnnie Walker Black," seems provoked by the Gulf Oil Spill. And "Target," set in Dublin, is inspired by the story of Veronica Guerin. The play's meaty scenes quickly engage and imply a potential for development that the best FringeNYC shows often do.
It also features some excellent performers who we should see more of. The cast is often top-notch, particularly Dennis Gagomiros and David Sedgwick, who give exceptionally grounded, gritty performances. Sedgwick plays two seemingly similar characters equally as compelling and believable with a subtly that gives each their own inner life. It's a satisfying pleasure to see such acting skill come alive with the tensions of long-time relationships in taut circumstances.
The excellent actors are given substantial material to play with by Glenda Frank's fascinating exploration of lives in hard journalism. And the play's not just about journalists and journalism. It's about people. People brought together by extreme situations, how they react, what they do, and to some extent, why they do what they do.
Why do they do what they do? The Fourth Estate hints at some answers, not all as noble as the characters' actions imply. In "Target" Valerie says, "I need to do what I do." The reasons are not just because she's a self-sacrificing saint. In the North Korean scene the relationship is strained because one believes the other did what she did for fame. And in "Johnnie Walker Black" an editor tells his former brother-in-law "It's my job to bring you mother fuckers down," echoing Wikileak founder Julian Assange's statement "I enjoy crushing bastards." Society reaps benefits from such motivations but we're also surprised and perhaps offended that they're not as unselfish as we want them to be. These are issues I would love to see developed and explored further in this or another production.
My one complaint with The Fourth Estate is that the exceptional writing and acting aren't always supported by the costumes and props. In "The Rookie" the green journalist not only acts like he just wandered off a college campus, he enters in a new Yankees cap and crisp white shirt. The effect of such costuming is a little surreal (which Afghanistan might be) and weakens the actor's and audience's connection to the setting. Most of the performances are strong enough to overcome this strange choice of spotless clothes and props. Sarah Kay and Jaygee Macapugay convey enough of their prison that we get the desperate appreciation of a cup of tea and a warm shower even though they're wrapped in just-off-the-shelf clothes and blankets.
For such a spare production The Fourth Estate provides enough drama and food for thought for several plays and articles. The quality of the writing and acting honors its heroic and complicated characters and each scene could be developed into a full-length play. The Fourth Estate is an admiring and open-eyed salute and a satisfying theatrical tribute to those who struggle to bring us the truth.