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Ripped from the fake headlines

Over a short period in 2003, the New York Times’ Jayson Blair scandal transformed the sometimes mundane business of news gathering into Shakespearean drama, in which the folly of one low-ranking servant shook a kingdom to its core.

If that feels like a fanciful reading of the incident -- in which the reporter, as you may recall, was accused of plagiarism and fabricating stories, touching off a crisis that led to a shake-up of the paper’s top editors -- it didn’t seem that way to playwright Gabe McKinley.

A former New York Times news assistant and onetime colleague of Blair’s, McKinley spent years fashioning a stage drama out of the scandal. The result is “CQ/CX,” an off-Broadway play that comes with a shiny pedigree: The show, which opened last week and runs through March 11, is directed by the five-time Tony Award nominee David Leveaux and staged by the Atlantic Theater Company.

Telling a story not so much ripped from the headlines as ripping the people who decide the headlines, “CQ/CX” (the title is a reference to editing notations) takes what we know about the scandal and puts it behind the thinnest of veils.

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In the late 1990s, a young reporter named Jay Bennett (Kobi Libii) scores an internship at the New York Times. His eagerness and productivity endear him to higher-ups, and he soon lands a staff job.

But his ambition bleeds into stupidity and worse, as he begins plagiarizing, exaggerating and inventing stories. Meanwhile, a new executive editor, Hal Martin (Arliss Howard, his character clearly modeled on then-executive editor Howell Raines), employs a brash management style. The play joins pundits in suggesting that the editor’s hard-driving attitude toward reporters leads both to Blair/Bennett’s violations and Raines/Martin’s own demise.

In portraying a reporter’s deception, “CQ/CX” evokes “Shattered Glass,” the film about disgraced New Republic writer Stephen Glass that came out a few months after the Blair scandal. But where the movie focuses on the story of one overreaching reporter, “CQ/CX” is concerned with something bigger: how top editors steer a newspaper in the face of major challenges, such as the Blair debacle, the advent of the blogosphere and even Sept. 11.

“I wanted to write a play about a complicated character, but I also wanted to tell a story about a newsroom that was in crisis, struggling with how to see out the last vestiges of the old way of doing things,” McKinley said.

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The playwright worked at the paper off and on from the mid-1990s until 2008, when he left to concentrate full-time on writing plays. He said he had numerous opportunities to observe Blair; he also keeps up with the newspaper through his two brothers, the veteran New York Times reporters James and Jesse McKinley.

Gabe McKinley brought a draft to Leveaux and Atlantic artistic director Neil Pepe, and the first reading took place a year ago. Pepe viewed the story, he recalled in an interview, as a “scandal thriller” with echoes of “All the President’s Men.”

But turning a controversy about the written word into a three-dimensional stage spectacle wasn’t easy. The Blair case touched on big themes of truth, ambition and race -- Blair and his champion, the New York Times’ late managing editor Gerald Boyd (the play’s character is named Gerald Haynes and is portrayed by Peter Jay Fernandez) were black, and race was never far below the surface. But its setting was more banal.

“We knew from the beginning it wouldn’t be easy to dramatize a process that’s about people typing on a computers or words ending up on a page,” Leveaux said.

Instead, they set out to draw a larger picture. As they developed the play, they put the editor, Martin, closer to the center, and made his ego as much a part in the drama as Bennett’s pathology. They also suggested that uncertainty over a digital future created a desperation and a laxity that Bennett exploited.

The show offers no easy motivations for the fallen reporter. Libii said he “wanted to find something to respect about the character to show that this was to a certain extent out of his control.”

Despite its broader ambitions, “CQ/CX” has a distinctly insider flavor. A number of New York Times staffers have already seen it, though Bill Keller, who replaced Raines as executive editor and had to clean up much of his mess, has not. He said in an email that he “can’t say [he’s] yearning to. I’m going to ‘Richard III’ next week. I prefer my villains Shakespearean.”

Jill Abramson and Jonathan Landman, respectively the paper’s current executive editor and its culture editor, have come to see the play. Landman, who was then the metro editor, had long raised red flags about Blair’s work and a supporting character in “CQ/CX” appears to be based on him.

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Pepe said he understood why the play would be a charged topic at the paper. But he also said he thought outsiders can appreciate it. “My hope is that it plays on both levels,” he said. “It’s a story about the newspaper business and how it’s changing, but it’s also about the tension between entertainment and telling the truth.”

Leveaux said he has been particularly struck by how the paper chose to review the show -- with a freelancer instead of a staff critic. (The review was largely negative.)

The paper has a history of freelancing reviews of plays and books by those with an affiliation to the paper.

“It’s not only that Gabe worked here; both of his brothers still do and of course the subject is us. It’s not a question of objectivity,” Landman wrote in an email. “It’s about keeping a necessary critical distance.”

McKinley, who previously wrote an off-Broadway play about male friendships titled “Extinction,” said he has had talks with Hollywood producers about turning “CQ/CX” into a film. He said he realizes there may be newspaper staffers who don’t like seeing their employer’s dirty laundry aired. “If they had their druthers I’m sure they’d rather I write about deep sea fishing,” he said. “But I think they understand the importance of this story. It’s a tale with a lot of dramatic resilience.”

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steve.zeitchik@latimes.com


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