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Foreign Correspondents

Tom Stoppard's 1978 play reminds us of a time when reporters had access to war zones

First, a funny story: On opening night of Night and Day, Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein sat behind the play's director, Carey Perloff, and when an Englishwoman onstage made a crack about journalism -- "Perhaps I'll get him a reporter doll for Christmas," she suggested to a room full of journalists. "Wind him up and he gets it wrong!" -- Perloff turned around and smacked Bronstein brightly on the knee.

Night and Day is about British correspondents in Africa, about innocence and experience, about love and death, and about journalism as a pillar of free society. When the play premiered in 1978, some of the critics were so shocked -- shocked! -- to see Tom Stoppard question the structure of a Western free press that they wondered in print whether he wasn't a heretic. Time has proved that he isn't (he's one of the greatest living playwrights in English), and ACT's 24th-anniversary revival of Night and Day should prove that the aging script is a minor classic, a beautiful example of realism, which a lot of people never associate with Stoppard.

The production isn't seamless, but René Augesen does so well as Ruth Carson, the Englishwoman, that most of the problems recede to nothing. Ruth is married to a wealthy British copper baron and lives in the fictional African country of Kambawe. Augesen perfectly captures the accent and bitter smile of a sunburned Londoner going to seed in a former colony, with a loose gold blouse and piled blond hair. Ruth drinks too much, sleeps around, and has a forked tongue. Three London journalists gather at her opulent home to cover an uprising in Kambawe, not only because the Carsons have a telex machine but also because of Geoffrey Carson's connections to "President" Mageeba, who's indistinguishable from a dictator. Oh, and it seems that Ruth once had a cheap fling with one of the reporters -- Dick Wagner -- in a London hotel room.

We Are the World: President Mageeba (Steven 
Anthony Jones, left) explains to a reporter (Marco 
Barricelli) how the press works in his (fictitious) 
African country.
Kevin Berne
We Are the World: President Mageeba (Steven Anthony Jones, left) explains to a reporter (Marco Barricelli) how the press works in his (fictitious) African country.

Details

Produced by the American Conservatory Theater

Through Oct. 20

Tickets are $15-61

749-2228

www.act-sfbay.org

Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F.

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Wagner is an arrogant cock from Australia who wears a plaid, polyester-blend suit, a broad tie, and a mop of brownish hair. For the first minute or so I didn't even recognize the actor as one of ACT's core group; I sat there wondering what was wrong with his accent. Then I realized it was Marco Barricelli. Wagner has to say things like "Spicial corrispowndint" or "Oi wos syin', Yo' Ixcellincy" ("I was saying, Your Excellency") in an unfortunate, high-in-the-throat voice that fails to make use of Barricelli's deep-chested baritone. Wagner is still a large, clear presence onstage, with a predatory interest in his gentleman host's wife -- Barricelli, in other words, inhabits the character in every other way. He just talks a little funny.

Wagner's turf in Kambawe is threatened by a young rival named Jacob Milne (T. Edward Webster), who turns out to be a strikebreaker from a small town in England. He lucked into a freelance gig with Wagner's paper, the Sunday Telegraph. Milne's idealistic notion of a free press and his anti-union attitudes ignite a debate with Wagner about the limitations of a corporate-run newspaper. Are journalists heroes delivering truth on a modest salary or workers dependent on the whims of a wealthy publisher? More to the point (and implicitly): If one of them dies in action, has he given his life for veritas or for a few column inches assigned by a profiteering boss?

The counterweight to this left-right parlor dispute is President Mageeba, played magnificently by Steven Anthony Jones. After a few minutes of sweet talk, Mageeba, in his gold jewelry and combat fatigues, launches into a fierce, tyrannical rant that cows even Wagner. His outburst suggests that a nation subject to the whims of an immature, tantrum-throwing dictator is in worse shape than any scribbler from London can imagine. "Do you know what I mean by a press that is relatively free, Mr. Wagnah?" says Mageeba, with a dangerous grin.

"Not exactly sir, no."

"It means a press that is edited by one of my relatives!"

One reason Stoppard's script survives is that it navigates the Cold War politics of 1970s colonial Africa -- where both the U.S. and the Soviet Union fought proxy wars -- without apologizing for either side. A dictator is a dictator, and Mageeba the Soviet-backed autocrat (albeit fictional) gets none of the soft treatment from Stoppard that, say, Tony Kushner gives to Ethel Rosenberg (who was executed for passing A-bomb secrets to Stalin) just because of her socialism. That's not to say certain details in Night and Day don't feel dated or parochial: The race humor is now sour, rather than jaunty, and Stoppard has tinkered with the script for this production to make his very British labor dispute more comprehensible to Americans.

But the core of the play is still vital, and Carey Perloff has dressed up her production with an expensive-looking set by Annie Smart (the Carsons' home swivels open and shut) and Peter Maradudin's lights (which accurately simulate the colors of an African night and day). The telex machine, Dick Wagner's horrible suit, and the other period details have simply slipped into history, and they bring back a time when war journalism was a freer commodity -- when reporters at least had access to war zones, and you could learn more about Uganda or Vietnam in a copy of the Chronicle than you can, these days, about Iraq.

 
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