Night and Day

Remy Bumppo Productions

at Victory Gardens Theater

By Albert Williams

I knew Bob Dole was going to lose when he started attacking the media. Rather, that’s when I knew he knew; resigned to President Clinton’s invulnerability, Dole trained his sights on a popular target, accusing the “liberal” press of trying to steal the election, currying favor with his conservative base. Media bashing always plays well; people love to take out their frustrations with everything that’s going wrong in the world on the industry whose job it is to report everything that’s going wrong in the world–even if, as in Dole’s case, the venting doesn’t do any good.

In Tom Stoppard’s 1978 Night and Day, a politician bashes the press far more effectively than Bob Dole ever could: Mageeba, the Western-backed dictator of the fictitious African “republic” of Kambawe, takes his cane and whacks a reporter over the head–and laughs. Mageeba is understandably pissed off: the newspaper that employs the reporter, one Dick Wagner, has printed a long interview with Mageeba’s enemy, the leader of Kambawe’s Soviet-supported rebels. If the Sunday Globe can give Mageeba a headache, the least he can do is give one back–even though Wagner had nothing to do with the interview. Wagner’s such a smug son of a bitch, he’s got to have it coming–besides, the press is the press.

A former reporter and critic himself, Stoppard makes clear that his sympathies lie with Wagner and his fellow writers and photographers. But he takes mischievous pleasure in depicting journalists as arrogant, fiercely competitive, and too taken with the adrenalin charge of journalism to care much for regular human relationships. Kambawe’s mid-70s war, which will destroy thousands of lives and write a new chapter in the history of postcolonial Africa, is just another story to the cynical Wagner–a chance to write a front-page article that will enthrall readers and impress his editor. When it comes to politics, he’s not much interested–unless it’s the politics of the British journalists’ union, to which he’s passionately committed. His colleague/competitor Jacob Milne–the young fellow who got the on-the-record exclusive with Mageeba’s rival–is much more idealistic. It’s Milne who delivers Stoppard’s most deeply felt ethical pronouncements: the notion that “information is light,” a beam illuminating the darkness, as implied by the play’s title.

But Milne can be just as ruthless as Wagner: he filled in at a provincial English newspaper when Wagner’s union was striking it, earning the sobriquet “scab” and Wagner’s vengeful anger once they find themselves dealing with the same story–and the same woman. Ruth Carson is the elegant, unhappy wife of a British mining executive in whose home the Globe team is encamped; having had a fast fling with Wagner, she finds herself drawn to the much nicer Milne. But she’s torn by doubts, wondering whether the attraction is merely part of the fantasy self-images she appropriates from 1930s pop tunes like “The Lady Is a Tramp” and the Cole Porter song that gives the play its name. Using the triangular relationship between Wagner, Milne, and Ruth, Stoppard paints a portrait of journalism as a reflection of human nature at its best and worst–making us appreciate the fact that the best cannot exist without the worst.

Offered as the debut of the newly formed Remy Bumppo Productions, Night and Day is well played by its fine cast: Si Osborne as the disheveled, sardonic Wagner; Paul Ratliffe as the ingenuous Milne; Lia Mortensen, effective as the ironically disengaged Ruth (though she pushes a bit too hard for the jokes); Ned Schmidtke as Ruth’s husband; Marc Vann as Wagner’s photographer companion; young Vaughan Meyer, charmingly self-possessed as the Carsons’ little boy; and Michael Quaintance in a devastatingly cool turn as the vicious Mageeba. Directed by James Bohnen, the production embraces the play’s specificity of time and place, thanks to the actors’ well-practiced British and Australian accents, Robert G. Smith’s detailed set (the living room of an Englishman’s African estate, well lit by Magaret L. Nelson), and Lindsay Jones’s sound design, which conveys the anxiety of a suddenly breaking war. (Unfortunately, noise from the lobby during a next-door show’s intermission intruded on Jones’s scheme; Victory Gardens’ impressive renovation–including a long-overdue elev-ator to the second floor–had better include some soundproofing, and quick.)

With its image of foreign correspondents feverishly banging out cold war dispatches on telex machines, Night and Day is undeniably a period piece in this age of instant computer communications. But the play remains exciting thanks to Stoppard’s witty dialogue, his compassion for the characters, and the enduring vitality of the questions he addresses: the role of a free press, the murky matter of owner/worker relations (if the press is to remain free, who’s gonna pay?), and the idealism and occasionally irresponsible recklessness with which reporters practice their sometimes-dangerous craft: in the play’s striking opening image, a man vainly tries to shield himself from a helicopter’s machine-gun fire–by holding up his press card!

Complementing these ethical explorations are a sassy but sad romantic subplot, a suspenseful second-act showdown that leads to a bitingly ironic twist, and a well-informed feel for the romance and drudgery of journalism. This is one of an inconsistent but often brilliant writer’s best works, and Remy Bumppo’s revival marks not only a play worth rediscovering but a new company worth watching.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Mitchell Canoff.