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Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers

Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons' crackling drama about the publication of the controversial documents receives a brilliantly acted production at New York Theatre Workshop.

Kathryn Meisle and Peter Strauss in Top Secret
(© Joan Marcus)
When The Pentagon Papers -- documents classified as "Top Secret" -- were first published by The New York Times in 1971, President Richard M. Nixon's administration angrily insisted that activist Dr. Daniel Ellsberg had stolen those documents and that The Times had no right to publish them. Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons crackling drama about that pivotal moment in history, Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers, is now being presented at the New York Theatre Workshop in a brilliantly acted production under John Rubenstein's tight direction. Not only is it a great story, it's also great theater.

The U.S. government did, in fact, get a court order stopping The Grey Lady from publishing any further installments of these documents until it could be determined if their publication would harm the nation -- since the document proved that the American government, through the administrations of several Presidents, had consistently lied to the public about our involvement in the conflict in Southeast Asia. With The Times enjoined from continuing its original plans to publish, The Washington Post saw an opportunity to put itself on the national stage by picking up where their colleagues left off, knowing full-well that the Nixon administration would come down on them with a vengeance.

The story is presented as a radio play, so the actors hold scripts and sound effects are created on stage to make it seem, at least to the ear, that certain described actions are actually happening. The sound design by Lindsay Jones is at once charming, funny, and entirely engaging.

The first act is the more emotionally powerful because it carefully builds to a moment of rather remarkable courage. With the clock ticking, Post editor Ben Bradlee (the commanding Peter Strauss) assembles the team that will both write and defend his publication of the documents. To keep his efforts entirely quiet, the work is being done in his home, where three writers sift the material and write overnight.

Meanwhile, Bradlee, Post chairman Fritz Beebe (Peter Van Norden), and Brian Kelly (Jack Gilpin), a company lawyer advising them of the serious risk they would be taking if they published the papers, get on a conference call with Post owner Katharine Graham (Kathryn Meisle) to argue their points of view. When she pulls the trigger and tells the men to publish, the audience bursts into applause!

The second act is more like a real-life Perry Mason story. It's satisfying and entertaining, although there's a bit more soap box speech-making in it. Still, you'll get no serious complaints from this quarter about a show as entertaining as this one.