Call it serendipity: Theatergoers this month can laugh as Tom Stoppard mocks journalistic pretensions (in Metrostage’s The Real Inspector Hound) or be horrified by the unpredictability of an African revolution (in Arena Stage’s Ruined). Or, they can save time and cash while doing both those things at Washington Shakespeare Company’s sharply staged Night and Day.
What were the odds? Pretty good when Stoppard’s involved, as this indefatigably clever playwright almost always works several narrative angles at once. In 1978’s Night and Day, which tracks three journalists covering an impending revolution in the fictional African autocracy of Kambawe, he’s referencing such intersections as colonialism and the cold war, capitalism and the fourth estate, labor unions and third-world dictators, Cole Porter and adultery, and the relationship between real world streets and their color-coded Monopoly avatars. He’s also caustically sending up the language, guiding principles and frequent lapses of journalism as that embattled profession was practiced in the 1970s, a quaint age of clattering teletype machines and—almost unbelievably for those who’ve gotten used to a 24-hour news cycle—weekly deadlines.
For the Sunday Globe, which employs cynical scribe Dick Wagner (Jim Jorgenson), crusty photog George Guthrie (Daniel Flint), and freelancing naïf Jacob Milne (Tyler Herman) is a weekly. Miss its deadline by an hour and you’ve missed it by six days, so these three are camping out at the teletype-equipped home of mining magnate Geoffrey Carson (Patrick Smith) and his slightly scattered wife Ruth (Abby Wood). With Ruth’s free-ranging thoughts on everything from race and journalism to extramarital flings being italicized in audience asides, and the journalists jabbering away competitively, Stoppard tosses in a wild card: Kambawe’s alternately charming and brutal strongman (Chuck Young) who smilingly says he prefers a “a relatively free press” (by which he means one “edited by one of my relatives”). Bright, witty conversation devolves inexorably into tragedy without ever becoming less sparkling.
I remember Night and Day feeling very of-the-moment when Maggie Smith starred in it at the Kennedy Center in 1979. Though technological changes have subsequently turned it into something of a period piece, its concerns still feel plenty timely in Kasi Campbell’s clear-eyed staging at the Artisphere. Where Stoppard’s later plays—The Real Thing, Rock & Roll, Coast of Utopia—overflow with feeling, here he’s waxing Shavian, every character a mouthpiece; Campbell gives them all their due. The accents spray every which way, but the arguments fly true.