Victory Gardens Studio Theater

If Philip Reed’s Nightside were a news story, it would be edited down and buried deep in the “metro” section right before the obits. It’s just not good copy. The qualities that make a good read and strong theater–surprise, timeliness, originality, and focus–are all but absent in this predictable story about two newspaper reporters who work the graveyard shift at Chicago police headquarters.

Yes, Reed once worked as a night police reporter for the City News Bureau in the 70s, when the story is set, so his slice-of-life details are colorful and characteristic. But they’re dropped into the play instead of rooted in it–they’re never anchored in action. And besides, Nightside is no The Front Page, in which a blaze of one-liners smokes out the characters’ foibles. Nightside’s naturalism takes its time–and ours–to convey, however unwittingly, just how boring the graveyard shift can be.

To be fair, Reed doesn’t just want to depict the dead-of-night tedium of a police beat; he aims to prove that in Journalism as much as in Greek tragedy, what goes around comes around. But to do that he’s concocted characters every bit as obvious as the lesson they teach and as black and white, literally, as their conflicts. The odd-couple news hounds are Leonard Cauley, a cocky, eager-beaver black reporter from South Shore who’s fresh out of J school and free-lancing for the Daily Herald. His colleague (at a time when Chicago had five dailies, this pressroom has two reporters) is Bernie Spirko, a hard-bitten, arrogantly cynical white reporter for the Tribune.

Once a hotshot, Spirko is now a burned-out byline, because, well, for one thing he doesn’t seem to have a typewriter. Ironically, this veteran is still on the same beat he had on his way up, though he’s sure that it’s temporary, that soon he’ll get the daytime education-reporter job he craves. Meanwhile, this cross between Lou Grant and Satan is predictably bitter. Ruthlessly competitive (“You advance your career by ruining other people’s lives”), he won’t share leads. But being lazy, he’ll gladly steal them. Obsessed with deodorizing the phone before he uses it, neurotically protective of his “scoop notebook” and his shortwave radio, and absurdly territorial about the pressroom couch (on which he dozes to avoid the call of duty), Spirko is so much systematic selfishness.

Of course he treats the truth as a weapon, not a goal. Convinced that “people always lie to you,” he’ll lie too–he has no qualms about pretending he’s a cop to get quotes from a bereaved widow. Spirko will also use his connections with the cops to tie up vital information so Cauley will miss his deadline.

Cauley is predictably different–an idealist who’s “already seen the fucked-up lives” in the ghetto and wants his reporting to make a difference. Because he’s been on the receiving end of news vultures who invade people’s privacy to grab a “human interest” angle, Cauley refuses to exploit the misery of recent victims.

Yet he does just that after Spirko freezes him out of a fast-breaking kidnap-murder story. To keep his job, Cauley pursues the one crummy lead Spirko throws him: in the middle of the night he phones the murdered woman’s unsuspecting husband to get some quotes. Improbably, the story that results is the one Cauley later shows to the Tribune–and the paper gives him the education spot Spirko wanted (Reed cynically implies that a good crime story qualifies a reporter to cover the board of education). Now Spirko has his couch all to himself.

Unfortunately, Reed doesn’t make us care much for either journalist. Spirko is never so detestable that his sinking further satisfies. His latent racism is evaded, not explored; he mutters something about quotas, and that’s that. His cheating is strictly by-the-numbers, nothing like the glorious shenanigans in The Front Page. And when Cauley resorts to using Spirko’s own dirty tricks, he too forfeits our sympathy; we never feel that he had no other choice, even if it’s a precedent that Cauley doesn’t intend to follow.

But any such analysis assumes a plot–and there’s none in Nightside. The play’s aimless exchanges and scattershot exposition take us nowhere. (Spirko’s unhappy home life is just one more piece of an already obvious stereotype.) Nothing is at stake in this undercooked script; you find yourself pleading, tell us something we don’t know. Better still, show it.

Dennis Zacek has valiantly staged this, the final offering in Victory Gardens Studio Theater’s season, as spontaneously as possible; he takes it seriously and almost manages to reinvent its cliches. You see that in Chuck Drury’s elaborately seedy police pressroom, a dump that seems claustrophobic even with its fourth wall absent.

The performances are equally authentic: however unmotivated the outbursts of their hack characters, Glenn Bradshaw Collins and Gary Houston give their formulaic clashes a power beyond the easy words. No self-righteous crusader, Collins’s young reporter unforcedly conveys a rare fusion of ambition and integrity–which clearly makes him allergic to Spirko.

All but typecast, Houston (a veteran journalist who has written frequently for both Chicago dailies) is awesomely at home with Spirko. Snapping Reed’s lines as if they were Ben Hecht’s, his Spirko relishes passive-aggressive machinations that infuriate and intrigue. So ripe is Houston’s opportunism that you wish he had real devilry to pursue, like the real estate con artists in Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross.

Like everything else here, Spirko’s been done before and better (by, for instance, Houston in Goodman Theatre’s The Front Page and Organic’s Kiss It Goodbye). Still, you can’t blame actors for failing to resuscitate unnewsworthy stereotypes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.