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Entertainment & Arts

Review: The collapse of journalism, live onstage. ‘Red Ink’ flows in Atwater

“Red Ink” by Playwrights’ Arena
At an embattled newspaper, the editor (played by Leo Marks, right) takes exception to the tactics of the new owner (Peter Van Norden).
(Kelly Stuart)

In a beleaguered newsroom, an editor stands atop his desk shouting, “Fire!”

Declining revenues and staff cuts were already triggering his alarm, but what’s pushed him over the edge is the public’s fraying support for its 1st Amendment truth-tellers. The words “enemy of the people” ring in his ears.

This is the waking nightmare of American journalism as captured by Steven Leigh Morris in his bleakly humorous “Red Ink,” being introduced by Playwrights’ Arena in Atwater Village.

Morris knows his subject well, having spent more than 25 years with the LA Weekly as a theater reviewer and editor, among other positions, and experiencing that publication’s wrenching changes.

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Within a wryly metaphorical context, he sends his audience careening through the media’s woes, including disruption by the internet; precipitous drops in revenue; concentrated corporate ownership, leading to crushing uniformity and ruthless efficiencies of scale; the weaponization of readership numbers; and the public’s polarization into media silos.

The topic is in the zeitgeist this winter. It’s also the backdrop for the Fountain Theatre’s “Human Interest Story,” opening in mid-February.

Of course, journalism isn’t the only distressed industry out there. “Red Ink” could just as well be the story of a lot of other workplaces.

“Red Ink” by Playwrights’ Arena
A newspaper staff (from left, Michelle Bonebright-Carter, Leo Marks, Steven Culp and Tracey A. Leigh) reacts to announcements by a new owner (Peter Van Norden) and his henchwoman (Jocelyn Towne).
(Kelly Stuart)

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New plays, Critics’ Choices, etc., in L.A. for Feb. 2-9 include the drama “Never Not Once” at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre and the musical “Fun Home” at Chance Theater in Anaheim

Reality keeps shifting as events unfold, a fitting metaphor for how it feels to be in the midst of social and economic change.

We experience this alongside the stressed-out editor Jerome (Leo Marks). What he’s endured at a once-vigorous weekly newspaper has driven him around the bend, as evidenced by the appearances now and again of an orderly and assorted psychiatric patients.

The action is set mostly at Jerome’s paper as it is absorbed into a chain and must submit to the demands of a cowboyish new owner and his ruthless henchwoman. Newsroom roles are filled by the orderly (Steven Culp), fellow patients (Jocelyn Towne, Tracey A. Leigh and Peter Van Norden) and Jerome’s visiting daughter (Michelle Bonebright-Carter).

Are we witnessing a drama therapy session or Jerome’s woozy imaginings? As the context continually warps, the performers — some of L.A.’s premier actors, crisply directed by Nike Doukas — shift so instantly, and with such specificity, that the audience speeds effortlessly along with them.

“Red Ink” by Playwrights’ Arena
A string of setbacks leaves a newspaper editor (Leo Marks) huddled under his desk, prompting a visit from the paper’s owner (Peter Van Norden).
(Kelly Stuart)

This is small theater at its best. Visually, a lot is created out of a little, and much of the audience, capped at a capacity of 50, sits within inches of the action.

Morris, who went on to found the digital journal Stage Raw, artfully blends the worlds of journalism and theater. It’ll be hard to forget the images he’s created or such incisive lines as a newspaper owner’s chilling assessment that America “can’t even agree on what a fact is anymore.”

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'Red Ink'
Where: Playwrights’ Arena at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Mondays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; ends Feb. 24
Tickets: $20-$40
Info: playwrightsarena.org, (800) 838-3006
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)


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