Performed by LA Theatre Works at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center
by Tim Treanor
Feb 8 — Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers performed last night in the University of Maryland’s Kay Theatre, was a history play with history sitting in the room.
The Geoffrey Cowan-Leroy Aarons collaboration took us to places which, for most of us, existed only in our speculating imaginations: Ben Bradlee’s (John Heard) townhouse, where three top Washington Post reporters sought heroically to reduce the 7,000-page Pentagon Papers into a readable news story; a garden party in the stately Graham mansion where Kay Graham (Susan Sullivan) made the fateful decision to publish the story in the face of possible criminal prosecution; and a closed courtroom where a crusty judge (James Gleason) and a Post lawyer acutely aware of the limitations of his case (Greg Harrison) helped create sharp new limits on the government’s ability to control the disclosure of information.
They better have gotten it right. Bradlee, Daniel Ellsberg, and two of the Post reporters were in the audience, watching them.
To put this in perspective, as Top Secret does: Defense Secretary McNamara had commissioned a secret study of the history of American involvement in Viet Nam, leading up to and including the American troop commitment. Ellsberg, the young military analyst who had reported the Gulf of Tonkin incident to McNamara, decided to leak the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.
The Times began to report the revelations in that report serially until the Nixon administration (Nixon is portrayed here by the ironically-named Tom Virtue) obtained an injunction which shut down the Times publication. The Post immediately obtained a copy and set about preparing to publish it the next day. Brian Kelly (Harrison), a lawyer engaged by the Post to prepare it for the litigation which would unquestionably ensue, urged a cautious approach, and Post Board Chair Fritz Beebe (Peter Van Norden) agreed: the Post was about to go public, and a criminal indictment would strangle its share value. But Graham, who had only recently inherited the newspaper after her husband’s suicide and had been feeling her way with the paper to date, was the only vote that mattered, and she said to go ahead.
L.A. Theatre Works staged this with great brio, notwithstanding that the actors performed without props or special costumes and with script in hand. L.A. Theatre Works is a radio theater, understand. We were watching what was designed to be listened to. It worked anyway. (I saw the show with three radio theater aficionados, who let me know that it worked in that medium as well).
What didn’t always work in the first act was the clunky, expositional dialogue. Aarons and Cowan labored hard to fill us in with background, some of which was unnecessary for us to know. “When I became Executive Editor six years ago, I said we had two choices…” they had Bradlee say to open a windy speech I doubt he ever made in real life.
The most strained, awkward, and implausible scene was an early dialogue between Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell over their plans to attack the Times for its role in the revelation of the secret report. This odd, barely coherent conversation, of course, came directly from the White House tapes, and gave us a picture of how difficult a task it is to portray the brilliant, inspired, self-loathing criminal who was our 37th President.
The pace stepped up considerably in the second Act, which was principally about the trial which ensued when the Nixon administration sought an injunction against the Post. This was in part because it was largely taken from trial transcripts, and it reinforced the impression many close observers of the legal scene have that the best trial lawyers are natural playwrights, who improvise their lines with money and human lives on the line. But it was also because it gave Harrison, as attorney Kelly, and Gleason, as District Court Judge Martin Peel, a chance to strut their stuff.
Kelly soon learned that the argument favored by the Post – that the First Amendment prohibited the prior restraint of any publication, even troop movements – would find no favor in Judge Peel’s courtroom. So, aided by reporter George Wilson’s (Bo Foxworth) encyclopedic knowledge of the war’s history and of the defense industry, Kelly attacked a stubborn, sophisticated defense witness (Virtue) to show that the Pentagon Papers’ most urgent secrets had in fact already been published years previous. The tactic worked, although the victory was not finally won until the Supreme Court upheld Judge Peel’s decision.
Later, Kelly, half-drunk at a celebration, laid the play’s moral theme before us: if we can no longer trust the government to decide what secrets are so crucial that they must be kept from us, why should we trust the newspapers to make the same choice?
It was a question which was also on the audience’s minds, as a subsequent talk-back session showed. Several audience members asked whether newspapers, freed from government prior restraint, were nonetheless just as self-censorious with information leading to the current war in Iraq as the government was with the Pentagon Papers. The peppery Bradlee, 86, vigorous and carnivorous, stoutly defended both the ability of the press to exercise good judgment and the judgment it had exercised to date.
Ellsberg had a less sanguine view, particularly of the New York Times’ lengthy review process for James Risen’s Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation of a CIA project to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program. Ellsberg waited until Bradlee left the building to voice his critique, however.
Of course, questions like these are never satisfactorily resolved, except by absolutists. The advantage that Top Secret offered was that it was at home with the complexity and ambiguity that the Pentagon Papers case presented. And the production was superb. In particular, Harrison, Gleason and the supremely graceful Sullivan, as the supremely graceful Graham, brought living history to crackling life.
There are still some tickets left for tonight’s (Friday, Feb 8 ) final performance. Order online or call 301 405-2787.