Ripped from the not-so-recent headlines, the Atlantic Theater Company’s Off Broadway drama CQ/CX presents a non-veiled, lightly fictionalized account of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal that erupted at The New York Times in 2003. Jay Bennett (Kobi Libii), an ambitious young African-American reporter, quickly climbs the ranks at the Times, soaring past fellow up-and-comers Monica Soria (Sheila Tapia) and Jacob Sherman (Steve Rosen). Managing editor Gerald Haynes (Peter Jay Hernandez), who knows first-hand the obstacles minority journalists face in the newsroom, takes Jay under his wing while Jay’s direct editor, Ben (Tim Hopper), notes the increasing sloppiness of his reporting. Jay’s career continues to flourish due to a variety of factors: blind faith? a warped form of affirmative action? negligence on the part of executive editor Hal Martin (Arliss Howard, given ample opportunity to rhapsodize about the Gray Lady). These all converge to allow his blatant fabrications to go unnoticed even as he files on-the-scene coverage of the 2002 Washington, D.C., sniper attacks from the comfort of his Brooklyn apartment.
Jay Bennett, played with appropriate inscrutability by Libii, makes for a fascinating, infuriating villain-protagonist as he transforms from wide-eyed reporter into someone who defies labels — is he a compulsive liar or a full-fledged sociopath? As was the case with his real-life counterpart, Jay’s motives are incomprehensible and astoundingly self-serving. We’re captivated when his journalistic transgressions escalate; composer David Van Tieghem’s loud, startling scene transitions and David Rockwell’s stark gray and black set design contribute to the atmosphere of impending doom.
Playwright Gabe McKinley, himself a former Times employee, touches on the many issues at play — cronyism, race, journalistic integrity — with popping, Aaron Sorkin-like dialogue, but the play seems to follow a piece of advice Ben gives to Jay early on: ”Just say what happened, simply and accurately, please.” While gripping, CQ/CX occasionally feels like a beat-by-beat re-creation of an actual news story, even though we could use a little more editorializing to answer the question of ”Why?” B+
(Tickets: Atlantictheater.org or 212-691-5919)