Tim Hopper, Kobi Libii, and Peter Jay Fernandez
in CQ/CX
(© Kevin Thomas Garcia)
Tim Hopper, Kobi Libii, and Peter Jay Fernandez
in CQ/CX
(© Kevin Thomas Garcia)
The story of Jayson Blair, the young African-American writer at the heart of a plagiarism scandal at The New York Times in the early 2000s, could make a fascinating drama. Unfortunately, Gabe McKinley's CQ/CX, receiving its world premiere from the Atlantic Theater Company at the Peter Norton Space under the direction of David Leveaux, only partially taps into its potential.

McKinley has fictionalized the names of the major players, although it's fairly easy to find out their real-life analogues, such as David Pittu's character Junior, who is a stand-in for actual New York Times publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr.

Blair himself is transformed into Jay Bennett (Kobi Libii), who starts out at the Times in a prestigious internship program. He proves to be a prolific writer at the Metro Desk, and his editor Ben (Tim Hopper) is initially pleased with his work. However, Ben grows increasingly concerned by factual errors that slip into Jay's stories.

The "CQ" of the play's title comes from editorial shorthand for a Latin phrase meaning, "the question falls," which indicates that a fact has been checked, while "CX" is an abbreviation for a correction. As the play goes on, it becomes clear that Jay does not pay attention to either of these.

Ben does not recommend Jay for a full-time position once his internship ends, but the young writer gets one anyway thanks to the paper's new managing editor Gerald Haynes (Peter Jay Fernandez), an African-American man who seems a little over-eager to accuse Ben of possible racism as the reason for not wanting to hire Jay.

The focus on race is one of the trickier aspects of the plagiarism scandal that develops, raising questions about the paper's affirmative action policies, among other things. It's also something of a red herring, as the lies that Jay tells both in person and in print seem to have little to do with his skin color.

But it does beg the question, what is Jay's motivation? And it's here that McKinley comes up short. The playwright touches upon issues of alcohol and drug abuse, but these are symptoms, rather than causes. Late in the play, mental illness is brought up as a potential reason for his behavior.

But ultimately Jay's answer to why he did what he did is, "You'll have to buy the book," which is a horrendously unsatisfying way for a playwright to avoid explaining his main character's motivations. Moreover, Libii's shallow performance does little to shed light on Jay's behavior, making it rough for the audience to believe there are any hidden depths to Jay.

Hopper does a fine job as Ben, capturing the man's intensity as well as a mischievous side that surfaces when he deliberately holds a story past a deadline. Steve Rosen has a charming low-key humor as Jay's friend and fellow intern, Jacob. Larry Bryggman is excellent in a fairly minor role as Frank, a veteran Times employee forced into early retirement, and Arliss Howard, as executive editor Hal Martin, gets handed the play's best speech -- describing the Times response to the tragedy of 9/11 -- and delivers it well.

Indeed, nothing else in the play matches this fine monologue. Sure, there's an intriguing plot and some interesting characters. But McKinley's work is too diffuse to have much of an impact. He seems to want to structure it as a tragedy, but Jay's character arc seems too incomplete to make it an effective one.