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A CurtainUp Review
A Question of Loyalty
The Rise and Fall of Edward R. Murrow

Edward R. Murrow has become one of the icons of journalism's glory days. Initially a radio man, he first made his name as a lone voice from bomb ravaged London before the United States got into World War II. He was a no-nonsense reporter who believed then and throughout his career that it was his duty to tell audiences not what but what to think about.

In his docu-drama A Question of Loyalty, subtitled The Rise and Fall of Edward R. Murrow, Michael Hickey charts Murrow's radio and television career through his friendship with his boss, CBS founder and chairman William Paley. As indicated by the sub-title, this play is as much about the downs as the ups in Murrow's life. In fact, there's little doubt that the audience is expected to see parallels between Murrow's losing battle against the rising tide of television mediocrity and the circus that often passes for responsible journalism today.

As directed and written by Hickey, the evolving saga of Murrow's ascending and descending star has much to recommend it. The overhead projections of some of the factionalized replays from Murray's "See It Now" broadcasts are often quite effective. An exemplary case in point is a broadcast that shows up Senator Joseph McCarthy, the demagogue from Wisconsin (portrayed via an overhead projector by Don Creech). Alas, the attempts at audience interaction via a warmup man (Victor Warren) trying to enliven the broadcast audience (and by extension those seated nearest the Producers' Club stage) falls flatter than the proverbial pancake.

The hints at Murrow's well-known romantic entanglements are not so much overlooked as rolled into a single relationship with Kay Katwell (Susan Brandner). It seems for a brief time during the war she had reason to call Murrow "darling", or at least "Ed." Once the war ended, however, she contented herself with calling him "sir" and serving as his loyal Girl Friday. This doesn't work too well since Joseph Lustig's Murrow simply doesn't project the magnetism to have this hold on one woman, let alone one woman who's supposed to embody a bunch of other Kays. Another loyalist, a young Fred Friendly (who died last year after a steadily upward path career ) is a more successful player in this particular drama -- largely because of Robert Mason's free of make-believe imitation portrayal (his glasses are the only attempt to suggest Friendly's physical persona) and the fact that the fictional Friendly is given some of the play's best lines.

As for the play's most developed and pivotal relationship -- Murrow and Paley -- Michael Barry Greer brings a good deal of sympathy to the role, both as narrator and in the face-to-face scenes. His insistent reminders of the relationship of trust and loyalty that began on that rooftop and continued with a contract free of all corporate intervention show the iron beneath the bluff exterior. One would wish that the costume coordinator had been on the job to pay attention to small details such as making sure that Mr. Greer/Paley did not go on stage without the edges of his jackets properly aligned -- both his red smoking jacket and his double-breasted corporate suit jacket were distractingly uneven through most of the two and a half hours.

This brings me to another not-so-minor quibble. The Producers' Club II Theater is a living room scaled space and one or two lit and puffed on cigarettes can make it feel like a smoke-filled nightclub and bring tears to the eyes. Granted, it's hard to portray Murrow without a cigarette in his hand for that was the image closely identified with the man (and at one time a favorite with stand-up mimics). On the other hand, since smoking was what did the man in at age fifty-six some sort of glowing cigarette used as a prop and a notice about why the realism of lit cigarettes are being forfeited would be a fitting homage -- and contribute immensely to the comfort of the audience.

While more a polemic (quite timely in view of the Starr inquiry) than play and too long by at least fifteen minutes, this two-week showcase is a timely reminder of what journalism once was. Several very complete biographies of Murrow might also be of interest, one of the more recent ones being:
Edward R. Murrow : An American Original by Joseph E. Persico, a 1997, 592-page biography now available in paperback from De Capo.

The Rise and Fall of Edward R. Murrow
Written and Directed By Michael Hickey
With Susan Brandner, John Canary, Don Creech, Michele Fulves, Chris Gannon, Michael Barry Greer, Melinda Lane, Joseph Lustig (as Murrow), Robert Mason, John C. Muntone, Kimberly "Q" Purnell and Victor Warren
Set design: Red Dot Scenic
Costume coordination: Augustine Studios
Lighting design: Beau Decker
Videography: Empowered Medio Corporation
Projection TV: Keslow TV
The Producers' Club II, 616 9th Ave., betw. 43rd and 44th Sts. (212/764-7900)
10/15/98-11/01/98; opened, 10/21/98
Reviewed 10/21/98 by Elyse Sommer

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© Elyse Sommer, October 1998