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Tom Stoppard, who first gained a reputation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, became most famous for doing what no English professor could when he turned the Bard into a pop-culture icon with Shakespeare in Love. But in the late '50s, before all the award-winning plays and films, Stoppard was earning his way as a workaday journalist. That writerly apprenticeship became fodder for his lesser-known and wryly inventive Night and Day, now running at Main Street Theater.
Set in an African nation on the brink of civil war, the thoughtful and uncharacteristically realistic script explores the motives of journalists on the trail of a hot story. Do they run to the bloody firing lines for glory, "to impress each other" or because "information is light" and facts can make people free?
At the center of this story is the bored, lovely and wickedly smart Ruth Carson (Leslie Maness), a middle-aged blond who hides her bombshell sexuality behind hefty highballs of scotch. The married mother spends her empty days lounging on a purple divan in her living room, ordering about her African servants. But she has a wild imaginary life that provides a subplot to the script's more immediate tale concerning the journalists who move into her home as the conflict outside heats up.
While political factions play cat and mouse over the rich mines that her husband manages, Ruth dreams of sexual encounters with strange and exciting men. It isn't long before we discover that she has, in fact, acted on her fantasies during a recent trip to London, though she argues that if it happens in a hotel room, "it shouldn't count as infidelity." Much to her chagrin, Dick Wagner (Joel Sandel), her tawdry one-night stand, has followed her home to Africa, not because he's interested in her so much as the Telex machine standing in her hallway. It's the only way to get information out of the remote town and back to London, where he can publish his journalistic "facts."
The arrogant, left-leaning Wagner argues that all his reports are factual. And when he finds his way to Ruth's scotch, ready to interview her husband, who's close to the country's President Mageeba (Manning Mpinduzi-Mott), he can't help starting a fight about the need for journalists in a free world. Ruth's venomous response comes from her own unfortunate experiences with the London press. Back when she and her husband were beginning their affair, the wealthy and well-connected engineer was in the middle of an ugly divorce. Ruth was treated badly in the papers. They followed her around with their "Lego set language they have," making a mess of her life.
Into the verbal sparring steps photojournalist George Guthrie (Robert Leeds), whose time spent in Vietnam left him a little shell-shocked: "This isn't going to be a helicopter war?" he nervously asks at one point. The young and inexperienced Jacob Milne (Jason Davis) brings his own opinions to the table, arguing that a free press keeps "people honest" and that "rubbish journalism is written by people who are looking to put a shine on the shit."
Ruth finds herself attracted to the smart young reporter. Once he's left for the war zone to get a dangerous interview, she fantasizes about his return, a deeply romantic reverie laced with the sort of intimate disclosures and tender kisses that only Stoppard could braid together. When her fantasies betray her, she lashes out at the reporters for their subservience to the "whims of private enterprise." Of course, this relationship between big business and news is even more apparent today than during the 1970s when Night and Day was written. But then again, these ideas were not new even in the '70s.
There is an almost contrived, soapbox quality to many of the arguments here, but Stoppard is such an extraordinarily limber and frankly intelligent writer that he can make even the most obvious statements sound positively revolutionary.
As directed by Rebecca Greene Udden, this production, which at first looks about as stable as water, solidifies into a tight ball of smart, furious energy by the end of the first act. The second act is even better. Holding court as the only female in the solid cast, Maness makes a woozy, blue-eyed and bitter muse whose acidic tongue melts down the men into frustrated puddles of rage. Davis, who amps up the entire production from the moment he walks on stage, is especially fiery as the naive and brash Jacob. His everyman good looks belie the depth of power that this unassuming actor projects. Sandel finds a way of making his rather pickled and cynical Wagner into a trusted reporter who is simultaneously admired and pitied. And Mpinduzi-Mott does an admirable job as President Mageeba, who is little more than a stereotype, an African leader/bully who smiles in a menacing way when he says he wants a free press.
These actors mix together their complex chemicals, which ignite Stoppard's imaginative though thoroughly didactic script, creating one of the best productions offered anywhere in the city right now.