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There has been a minor controversy during the recent Bush/Kerry debates about cameras zooming in on the President to keep the candidates at equal height level. Clearly, minor adjustments to mass media images can be very important; but Cry Wolf, a play about a war photojournalist, won't shed any light on how or why this happens. Instead, playwright Deborah Mulhall piles melodrama upon melodrama, reducing what could have been a timely story to bad sitcom fare.

As the play begins, Nick Grey (Jules Helm) returns from Cambodia to his home in Sydney to meet with American biographer Rebel Delmer (Rachel Venokur), whose sense of professionalism doesn't stop her from indulging in a couple of rolls in the hay with her subject. In spite of being an alcoholic misanthrope, Nick is a ladies' man who, as his best friend Brian Hemmingway (Michael Waldron) says, got the nickname "The Wolf" for his womanizing. Almost immediately after this is explained, we hear a knock on the door from Nick's illegitimate child, Rose (Erin Hadley); her mother has just died and the girl needs a place to stay.

Of course, this puts a serious snag in Nick's lifestyle. He calls his friend Marie (Koo Abuali) to see if she can take care of the kid because -- well, she's already a mother. She's also his old flame and now a married woman. But Nick's such a charmer that he almost seduces Marie into accepting the idea before she decides that it would be best if the 16-year-old is allowed to crash in Nick's house unattended while he's away on assignment. In sitcom style, the precocious kid makes Nick deal with an issue that he's long avoided, but it's in the form of a plot twist that even most TV producers would find implausible: that Nick had foreknowledge of several of the murders he documented, and that he allowed them to happen for scooping's sake. Scandal brews, and Nick is soon under suspicion for aiding and abetting the enemy.

Certain photojournalists find many ways of revealing their sympathies by choosing what to include in or leave out of a frame; just ask The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, who disrupted the upbeat coverage of the Vietnam war and the second Iraq war by breaking stories about the My Lai Massacre and the torture at Abu Ghraib. Cry Wolf could have explored photojournalism ethics seriously if Nick ignored a killing for political purposes or, say, if he took heroic shots of the enemy. But it strains credibility to say that he staged his photos when there's real carnage surrounding him.

For the most part, the quality of the acting is no better than that of the playwriting. Helm gives the one-dimensional character Nick a one-note performance. During moments of dramatic tension, Venokur simply purses her lips, while Hadley buries her face in her hands (or in tissues) when her character cries. Waldron and Abuali give the impression that, armed with a better script, they could be engaging actors. The director and the rest of the creative team should probably be spared any assessment since the play is a house of straw that provides no defense against wolfish critics.

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