When this off-Broadway play was announced back in March, I rushed to get my name on the list of patrons. Like most people who write for a living, having a chance to peer into the head of one of the most renowned journalists in America held a certain sway.
Playing at The Wild Project through May 22, an intimate theatre deep in Alphabet City, at 195 East Third Street, the script by Joseph Vitale stars Joseph Menino, who has the look (and chain-smoking cigarette demeanor) of the eminent broadcaster, down to his slicked-back and pomaded coif, deep baritone, and trademark braces.
The set is simple—chair, table, and the 1940’s microphone, a far cry from the tiny buds we see pinned to broadcasters today. Menino did a good job of recapping Murrow’s rise to fame, which began on a farm in Polecat Creek, North Carolina, then a move, at age six, with his family to homestead in Washington State, where he excelled in debate under the tutelage of Ida Lou Anderson, his polio-ridden teacher. Her guidance followed him well into his career—it was she who instructed him on the proper diction of his, “This is London” preamble to his broadcasts during the blitz while on foreign assignment for CBS.
The actor-as-narrator also explained the genesis of “Good Night and Good Luck”, the phrase he used to sign off. During war-time London’s incessant bombing by Berlin, citizens couldn’t be sure if their friends would be alive the next day following a raid. (Murrow and his wife, Janet Brewster, lost a dear friend in one particularly horrific one.)
Murrow’s World War II broadcasts were so effective in drumming up support for Britain that Prime Minister Winston Churchill asked him to join the BBC. (He demurred, although he carried on a public affair with the Prime Minister’s daughter-in-law, Pamela Churchill, a fact not mentioned in the play, but including it would have done a great deal to liven it up and move it beyond a staged biopic.)
His war-time reporting culminated with being embedded in Patton’s Third Army and Murrow’s broadcasting of the horrors witnessed at the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Menino delivered it with the ringing tone of abject disgust, including the reference to “bodies stacked up like cordwood,” which still repels us (and rightfully so) 71 years hence.
Murrow returned to the United States after the War, and continued to work for Bill Paley and CBS in the pioneering days of television, culminating with his “See It Now” series. One segment, which showcased Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red scare, is often credited with leading to the senator’s ultimate censure and downward spiral to his death from alcoholism.
Murrow’s hard-hitting reporting was a double-edged sword, clueing his viewers on sordid details, but frequently offending the network brass (and its advertisers) in the process, and then permanently destroying his close friendship with Paley. His resignation from CBS led to leadership of the United States Information Agency under President John F. Kennedy.
Although the play would benefit from more insight into Murrow’s personality, for those who admire the man and his work, Murrow is a good start. Given today’s backdrop of political correctness, Murrow reminds us of a time when broadcasters spoke their mind—and were willing to accept the consequences.
Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein