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“Corruption” reviewed

“Corruption,” J.T. Rogers’s tantalizing new phone-hacking play, starts on Rebekah Brooks’s wedding weekend. In a village in the English countryside, the flame-haired power broker, one of Rupert Murdoch’s favorite tabloid editors, has drawn the cream of Britain’s political class to her celebration.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown is there, and so is David Cameron, the Tory who will succeed him. But Brooks (Saffron Burrows) is sequestered in conversation with her charmless boss, Rupert’s son James (Seth Numrich). He informs her that television and new media are the company’s focus now.

 

“Newspapers are a relic,” James says. So his contempt is already evident when he tells her that she is the new chief executive of News International, the Murdoch-owned British newspaper group. Congratulations?

It will be on Brooks’s watch, anyway, that a many-tentacled scandal erupts, with the revelation that her journalists clandestinely acquired the voice mail messages not only of celebrities and politicians but also of a missing child who was later found dead. Multiple arrests ensue, with accusations of phone hacking, police corruption and perverting the course of justice. Rupert Murdoch shuts down News of the World, his top-selling Sunday tabloid. Through it all, he remains loyal to Brooks.

As a news story evolving in real time, the scandal made for jaw-dropping reading. As a play, though, “Corruption” is uncompelling — counterintuitively so, given the inherent drama: the crimes, the coverup, the comeuppance (or not), the clashes of personality. Also the stakes, which include the well-being of a democracy in which one culture-shaping media magnate holds too much sway.

Tom Watson (Toby Stephens), a Labour member of Parliament as the scandal brews, is the central figure. (Murdoch, frequently mentioned, is a looming unseen presence.) Rumpled and besieged, Watson is determined to expose the widespread, under-the-radar operation: the surveillance, the intimidation, the gathering of secrets. The police, in the meantime, are oddly incurious about the voluminous records of a private investigator who they know hacked phones for News of the World.

Watson teams up with the lawyer Charlotte Harris (Sepideh Moafi, bringing a harried warmth); the journalists Nick Davies (T. Ryder Smith) and Martin Hickman (Sanjit De Silva); Max Mosley (Michael Siberry, wonderfully snobbish), a wealthy onetime target of the newspaper willing to spend big to exact revenge; and Chris Bryant (K. Todd Freeman, a welcome jolt of energy), a Labour member of Parliament who joins the cause despite his loathing of Watson. In taking on the tabloid, they risk their own safety and that of their families.

Directed by Bartlett Sher for Lincoln Center Theater, “Corruption” opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater on Monday, as Murdoch turned 93. But the ominous thrum at the heart of the intrigue has been muffled here by the barrage of information coming at us: from the stage, from the ring of screens suspended above it, from the vast upstage wall. Does so much of the play need to be told in video and projected text? (The set is by Michael Yeargan, projections by 59 Productions.)

One gets the sense of a show undermining itself with its own busyness. Even at the end, as the actors are taking their bows, they are upstaged by projections — photos of the real people the characters are based on, captioned with their names. In what should be the performers’ moment, these fleeting images demand the audience’s immediate attention.

The play is inspired by Watson and Hickman’s “Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain,” a 2012 book so comprehensive that it includes a list of “dramatis personae” as a reference for the reader. It’s a chronicle too convoluted to lend itself easily to drama.

That’s an obstacle that Rogers (“Oslo”) hasn’t found his way around. He has, however, streamlined extensively; for example, a team of New York Times reporters is represented by just one, a tough-as-nails Jo Becker (Eleanor Handley). Rogers has also invented scenes, like Brooks and her husband, Charlie (an affably funny John Behlmann), meeting with the wary surrogate (Robyn Kerr) who is carrying their child.

Yet “Corruption,” whose throat-clearing first half is laden with exposition, struggles to tap into the visceral and help us feel what’s human in the story. More elementally, it doesn’t shepherd us through the labyrinth of events, characters and entities in a way that entices us to follow.

Hanging in the balance is a lucrative television deal that Murdoch’s News Corp. is eager for the British government to approve. But I’m not at all sure that audience members — even those primed by “Succession” to become emotionally invested in the arcana of corporate acquisitions — will grasp its significance amid the play’s muchness.

There are sparks of life throughout “Corruption,” and Dylan Baker doubles nicely in two bad-guy roles. Stiltedness stalks the play from the start, though, and it all feels terribly remote — tangled in a thicket of intel, unable to hack its way through.

If Corruption and his preceding Oslo suggest anything, playwright J.T. Rogers has a formula. Take a historical event, dramatize it on the broadest possible scale, pepper the seriousness with unexpected bits of levity, and wrap it all up by gesturing toward how what we’ve just seen is relevant to the present. If nothing else, they’re “educational” if you go into them not knowing all the details of the history they’re dramatizing. Whether they make for great theater, however, is less certain.