"Above the Fold," the title of former New York Times reporter Bernard Weinraub's stacked new morality play about 21st century journalism now at the Pasadena Playhouse, reveals the author's background as an ink-stained dinosaur.
For tablet-reading news junkies under 40, the expression refers to the placement on the front page of a broadsheet newspaper that attracts the most eyeballs and therefore wields the most influence.
The very appealing Taraji P. Henson, best known for her role in the CBS crime drama "Person of Interest," stars as Jane, an ambitious reporter at a prestige New York newspaper who's tired of writing lifestyle pieces about trendy Harlem restaurants. She's desperate to tackle stories that will land above the fold and seemingly stumbles upon one when on assignment in North Carolina.
Monique (Kristy Johnson), an African American mother of two who works as a stripper, accuses three white fraternity boys from the town's elite university of savagely raping her. Lorne (Mark Hildreth), a district attorney with his eye on a congressional seat, takes up Monique's case, eager to drum up media attention for his own political benefit.
After Lorne shows Jane photos of a bruised and battered Monique and labels this incident a "racial minefield," Jane believes she's found her journalistic pot of gold, the scoop that will get her the post in Afghanistan she covets and eventually a place on the masthead.
The only problem is that her narrative is determined before the facts are fully known. In the economically hobbled news-gathering business, what used to be called yellow journalism is now apparently standard operating procedure — at least in the view of a recovering journalist trying to make a name for himself as a dramatist and willing to present as incendiary and distorted a picture as any tabloid headline writer working today.
Based on the infamous 2006 Duke lacrosse rape case, in which three young men on the university's team were falsely accused of raping an African American woman who worked as a stripper, "Above the Fold" levels a scathing attack on Weinraub's former profession.
As a newsroom veteran, he understands the ways stories can be sensationalized to sell newspapers and tally Internet clicks. But as a cub playwright, whose previous play "The Accomplices" struggled to transform controversial White House history to the stage, he doesn't possess the skill to dramatize with much credibility, never mind subtlety, these practices. Worse, in letting his agenda get the better of him, he turns the insidious into something simplistic, clumsy and obvious.
A crucial misstep is the way Jane comes off as so professionally unsophisticated. Had Weinraub made her a less amateurish reporter, his critique would have more sting.
On her first meeting with the district attorney, Jane knocks back a glass of vodka, then gets him to talk on the record while supplying him with loaded language that will be sure to ignite a media firestorm. She offers hugs to Monique and even gives her the expensive shoes off her feet. (Heavy-handed theatrical metaphor is a prominent part of Weinraub's doctrinaire tool kit.)
As for the three accused frat boys (played by Kristopher Higgins, Joe Massingill and Seamus Mulchay), this supposed seasoned reporter barely has the time or inclination to get their side of the story.
Media bias isn't a surreptitious phenomenon embedded in newsroom culture but an open conspiracy. One of the accused students, a journalism major, charges Jane with "leading the lynch mob."
"You knew exactly what you were going to write before you even talked to us," he says, vanquishing her on her own turf.
Newspaper stories are depicted as a collaborative sport. There are scenes in which Jane is writing on her mini laptop while Marvin (Arye Gross), her editor, is changing the wording by telephone.
"Smiling" becomes "grinning," "ivy-covered" is added to "off-campus fraternity house" and, to ensure no dimwitted reader misses the point, "laden with racial overtones" is tacked on to "brutal incident."
Marvin is less a believable character than a cynical manifestation of how far Weinraub thinks journalism has fallen.
To ensure that Jane keeps supplying the paper with red meat, he dangles promotions and dismisses her doubts about the glaring inconsistencies in Monique's testimony.
The value of balance, extolled by journalists for preserving fairness and recognized by theater artists as essential in the triumph of dramatic complexity over melodrama, is lost in "Above the Fold," which is as dramatically rigged as David Mamet's "Oleanna," though not quite stylish enough to follow in its cause célèbre footsteps.
The production, directed by Steven Robman, is briskly paced and often absorbing even when the dialogue grows clunky and realism is thrown out the window. Lending the action a contemporary sheen, Jeffery P. Eisenmann's screen-bedecked set pulsates with Jason H. Thompson's projections mimicking the crazy tempo of today's 24/7 news cycle.
Henson wins us over with her likability. She provides glimpses of a conscience that Weinraub runs roughshod over, but unfortunately it's not enough to keep us emotionally invested in this schematic play.
In scoring points, the playwright forgets that in the theater the most compelling battles are the internal ones.
One could say that in failing to write a protagonist as multidimensional as the actress playing her, he transfers to the stage a cardinal act of journalistic malfeasance: He buries his lead.
'Above the Fold'
Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 23.
Tickets: Start at $38