nytheatre.com review by Mary Beth Smith
September 11, 2011
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater's The Wood is a dramatization of Mike McAlary’s story complete with drama, humor, and visceral tragedy. Written by Dan Klores, a friend of McAlary, The Wood attempts to capture his huge personality on stage while also showcasing the major milestones in his life that led to his most remarkable piece of journalism. Klores’s friendship with McAlary, however, may have served to hinder parts of the production more than it successfully portrays McAlary’s life.
In New York City journalism, the name Mike McAlary invokes admiration and sorrow. McAlary became a controversial figure in the '90s with his story about a falsified rape in Prospect Park led to a time of humiliation for him, his family, and the paper he called home. So when a source calls him with an incredible tip, McAlary—who is supposed to be at a chemotherapy treatment for colon cancer—must follow it. His desire to seek out the truth at all costs and to restore his reputation leads him to the story of a lifetime and a Pulitzer Prize for outstanding journalism.
While the first half of the play is somewhat weak, the second half is fast-paced and truly enraptures the audience. In the first act, Klores attempts to fill in the previous moments of McAlary’s life—how he became a reporter, his jumps between New York papers, his besmirched reputation by the mass media and his colleagues, and his cancer treatments. Klores is clearly trying to use these moments as building blocks to explain how McAlary was the only journalist capable of telling the story of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who was mercilessly tortured by Brooklyn cops. What the first half of the play fails to do, however, is deliver a coherent portrayal of these events. The playwright jumps from scene to scene so often that the production has no ability to gather steam and feels disjointed during the first hour of the show. Klores jumps from a bar, to the McAlary home, to the hospital, to the newsroom, to the home of Louima and back again so quickly that it is hard to get a sense of the direction that the play is taking. One cannot tell if the story is about McAlary’s fall from grace, his cancer, his family life, or the jealousy of his close friend Tommy. But then, right before intermission, the action of the play gets going: we experience the shocking brutalization of Louima first hand and are ready to devour the events that unfold.
The second half of The Wood features incredibly strong storytelling from both the playwright and director David Bar Katz. We discover the story along with McAlary and understand that he must tell this story no matter what the risk will be to him, his family, or Louima. It is coherent and vibrant and lets us see a side of McAlary that is infused with life and strength. This part of the play is when everyone finds their footing and tells an investigative story with clarity and heart.
The lead, played by John Viscardi, works similarly to the production. In the beginning he seems nervous and unsure, unconfident in his place in the story and how the story itself is unfolding. He does the best he can with what he is given, but the cinematic style of the production fails him in the beginning. Once the second half starts, however, he barrels through with McAlary's real sense of confidence in the power of his journalism to expose the cops responsible for the vicious attack of Louima. Viscardi’s shinning moment on stage is during his climactic scene with Justin Volpe, played by Michael Carlsen, the police officer that attacked Louima. He is calm and inquisitive and successfully breaks down Volpe’s clean cop act causing an excessively violent confrontation between the reporter and the cop.
Overall this production needs to be restructured, by bringing the audience into the relationship between McAlary and Louima, how their lives juxtapose with one another and how they are both fighting for their physical lives while trying to expose the truth regardless of fear. McAlary’s life story is theatrical in itself and if Klores can get to the heart of the story he really wants to tell, this play will fascinate and educate audiences well into the future.