|By Steven Stanley
What’s been happening to print journalism since the Internet took control could drive a newspaper person crazy, or so a certain alternative press reporter discovers quite literally in Steven Leigh Morris’s brand new play Red Ink, the exciting, adventurous latest from Playwrights’ Arena.
If the playwright’s name rings a bell, it’s probably because as Theater Editor for the once great LA Weekly, Morris was widely considered our city’s best and most respected drama critic.
But those were the good old days, before the Weekly decimated its theater coverage, leaving Morris both able and available to write a fictionalized version of the Weekly’s corporate takeover.
Such is unfortunately not the case for the currently institutionalized Jerome (Leo Marks), whose "drama therapy" includes playing himself in a staged recreation of events leading up to his nervous breakdown. (Think Marat/Sade's play-within-a-play, but without the French Revolution).
Said events begin when alternative newspaper mogul Earl Glory (Peter Van Norden) swoops in from Orlando to turn Jerome's beloved Herald into the latest of the now fourteen weeklies that make up his Our Times chain.
Lured by the promise of at long last becoming the kick-ass editor he's always dreamed of being, Jerome accepts Earl's offer of a promotion, but only after eliciting the new owner's promise that the Herald won't be gutted like his other papers have been.
In exchange, Earl guarantees almost no interference (well, minimal interference at most) provided the Herald stop its "liberal navel gazing" and start targeting local corruption no matter which side of the political fence it's on.
Unfortunately for Jerome, the compromises start right away, beginning with the elimination of the paper's entire fact-checking department, no matter that this will mean hours more work for its reporters.
Our Times' hard-as-nails personnel director Jocelyn Flanders (Jocelyn Towne) then orders Jerome to get in line with other papers in the chain by adjusting the editorial-to-ad ratio from 33/67 to 25/75 and moving more of the paper's content on line.
And this is just the beginning of Red Ink's heady mix of the surreal and the meta "directed" by a hospital orderly (Steven Culp) and performed by (among others) Jerome, who knows better than anyone how to play himself; Paulina (Towne), whose regression to kindergarten age has her either ad libbing lines that aren't in the script ("I hate Jocelyn. She creeps me out!") or bursting into dance whenever the spirit moves her; and wack job Murray (Van Norden), who keeps popping in, scenery be damned.
Not only does Red Ink prove Morris an accomplished playwright, it gives a quintet of L.A. theater superstars and one equally talented newcomer the chance to dazzle under Nike Doukas's inspired direction, whether playing multiple characters (including Tracey A. Leigh as the Herald's tough-talking web editor and Jerome's increasingly frustrated wife, recent Stella Adler grad Michelle Bonebright-Carter as the paper's mousy film reviewer and Jerome's lesbian daughter, Van Norden as the paper's now ancient music critic, and Culp as a panama-hatted mystery man named Mortimer), or (as is the case of an on-fire Marks), one humdinger of a lead role.
Scenic designer Lily Bartenstein's thrust-stage set not only utilizes newspaper pages to ingenious effect, it turns audience members into flies on a mental hospital's walls.
Just as inventive are Michael Allen Angel's properties, Bartenstein's projections, Matt Richter's lighting, Mylette Nora's costumes, and Jesse Mandapat's sound design, and choreographer par excellence Cate Caplin scores points for Towne's graceful ballet moves and a delicious tango for Jocelyn and Jerome.
Veronica Vaxquez is stage manager. Kane Eddington is technical director.
As for how much of Red Ink is fact (or fact-based) and how much of it is the product of Steven Leigh Morris's imagination, only the playwright knows for sure. What is absolutely certain is that Red Ink will have you relishing its every riveting minute from start to finish.
Playwrights' Arena @ Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village. Through February 10. Mondays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 4:00. Also Saturday February 1 at 4:00. Reservations: 800 838-3006 www.playrightsarena.org