Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Not to be confused with Oliver Stone’s movie Salvador or Joan Didion’s book of the same name, Rafael Lima’s play El Salvador is a bitter and cynical look at the reporters and cameramen who work so hard to bring us the news from around the world–sometimes losing their souls in the process.

These journalists are holed up in a hotel suite in El Salvador, where an unnamed network news department–which sounds suspiciously like CBS–has set up an international news bureau. Outside the hotel, yet another third-world country looks to be on the verge of yet another civil war. Ad hoc death squads roam the streets, and people are “disappeared” without warning or reason. Firefights, nicknamed “bang-bang” by the media, erupt on a daily basis among the different guerrilla forces, government armies, and local police. In Joan Didion’s words: “Terror is a given of the place.”

Inside the hotel, six half-crazy yanquis play out the rituals of a culture that believes it can control world events if it just watches enough news footage. Interestingly, Rafael Lima’s play never leaves the relative safety of this hotel room. We never see the war outside, we only hear about it, as it’s described by the infantry of the unnamed network’s news army, the cameramen and reporters who daily leave the hotel to film another bang-bang or photograph yet another tangle of disfigured corpses by the side of the road. All this accentuates the fact that most of what we know about places like El Salvador comes to us via the airwaves, served up in bite-size chunks in the safety of our living rooms.

Lima’s play presents itself as a slice of everyday life among the burnt-out, drugged-out journalists at the bureau of the unnamed network, performed in one continuous 90-minute-or-so scene (plus a short, hand-tipping epilogue–see, it was a play after all!). Of course, even life in wartime is usually less dramatic than this. For the price of one little play, we get two major personal crises, a destroyed marriage, an aborted evening with a prostitute, lots of drinking, some drug taking, a long, bitter invective against the predatory nature of TV journalism, and a behind-the-scenes look at the way big-time journalists throw together a story in a matter of minutes and get it to New York for the evening news. Which is a long way of saying that this play tries to be two things at once–a dramatized documentary in real time and a conventional, somewhat melodramatic story of a few particular news foot soldiers–with the expected result that at times it comes precariously close to failing the plausibility test.

Machine guns fire in the streets only during lulls in conversation, the lights go out only after the news story has been safely placed on the satellite, personal crises wait for convenient times in the story. The last personal crisis of the play–Fuller the cameraman’s tearful admission that he’d secretly hoped a little boy would get “zapped” because it would make such great news footage–comes close enough to the end of the play to serve as an excuse for a self-righteous attack on TV news, “the beast . . . that gobbles up disasters, eats up tragedy, consumes grief.” During this speech I half expected the words MESSAGE OF THE PLAY to flash across the back wall of the set.

Unfortunately, most of Fuller’s complaints about journalism sound like retreads from Lou Grant or Broadcast News–newsmen distort the truth to make the news more interesting; grunts do all the work, on-camera newsmen get all the glory; a pathetic shot of a dead child is much more interesting than a cogent explanation of why the country is going up in flames. Ironically, Lima’s play suffers from the same flaws that mar most network newscasts. Like most TV news stories, the play is long on heavy-handed emotional impact and visual appeal, and (very) short on intellectual content. Just like TV news, Lima, a former journalist for CNN, manipulates the audience’s emotions and demonstrates an aversion to any sort of intelligent, carefully reasoned commentary or analysis.

Luckily, Steppenwolf’s production is too well conceived, too cunningly executed, to let these flaws in an otherwise well-written play ruin the show. Not a stick of furniture on the set looks out of place, not an actor is miscast. It would be hard to imagine anyone better than Mike Nussbaum for the part of Fletcher, the tired, middle-aged, alcoholic bureau chief, or better than Ed Wilkerson for his young and linguistically gifted right-hand man, Skee.

Next to these two, Tim Hopper’s and Kevin O’Conner’s more subdued, but no less real, portrayals sink into the background. Even when Hopper, as the prepped-out on-camera correspondent McCutcheon, freaks out during a machine gun battle in front of the hotel, his panic seems more comic than serious. In marked contrast, Ted Levine’s portrayal of the growling, mumbling burnt-out photographer, Pinder, was so intense and believable that the two little old ladies sitting behind me whispered uncontrollably whenever he spoke: “Isn’t he a mess!”