‘Muckrakers’: Can transparency be taken too far?

Esem Allen and Lewis D. Wheeler in "Muckrakers" at the New Repertory Theatre. Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

Esme Allen and Lewis D. Wheeler in “Muckrakers” at the New Repertory Theatre. Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

WATERTOWN — The idea of what constitutes a journalist continues to be a moving target, as does the idea of what constitutes journalistic ethics, if indeed there should even be such a thing.
And muddying the waters are the hacker/journalists who have seen their profiles grow in recent years.
What does the public have a right to know? Is the right to know absolute? As the characters in Zayd Dohrn’s drama know, there’s transparency and then there’s transparency.
“Muckrakers,” now being presented at the New Repertory Theatre as part of the Black Box Festival, has been advertised as   “ripped from the headlines, “ inspired by Chelsea Manning’s 2010 release of classified information to WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden’s release of classified documents. Or, if we’re honest, the craven hacked nude photos of celebrities or even the embarrassing emails hacked from Sony Studios.
In Dohrn’s two-character, 75-minute piece, Brit Stephen, 39, (Lewis Wheeler) and 25-year-old Mira (Esme Allen) enter Mira’s Brooklyn after opening the evening together at a gala where Stephen has accepted an award from Mira’s activist group, an “online agitprop news source,” which has been in existence for a year and doesn’t have the money to put him up in a hotel.
She invites him to spend the night on an air mattress, but it appears he has designs on something else involving her.
Mira’s Durga Project believes in the idea of “making everything open,” the free exchange of all information with the idea “that “no one has the right to privacy.” That philosophy will become a key element later on in the piece
Dohrn’s parents, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, were members of the Weather Underground, so the playwright is well-acquainted with politics — and radical politics at that, and characters such as Stephen and Mira who traffic in areas outside of mainstream politics.
Stephen has gained international fame by working with an Army private in Iraq to expose American secrets about war abuses by the U.S. in Iraq. The soldier languishes in jail while Stephen tours the world on the lecture circuit, fending off U.S. authorities by threatening to release more documents.
Stephen — by his actions and words — might best be described as paranoid, but isn’t that just a part of spending life on the run, waiting for the rug to be pulled out from beneath him. Soon after entering the apartment, he scours it for hidden microphones, and at one pint Mira strips down to show she isn’t hiding anything.
She’s for releasing all information on anything at any time. He draws the distinction between government secrets and the lives of private citizens.
There is generous amount of verbal sparring as she seeks information and he seeks conquest. “Muckrakers” has sexual situations and a fair amount of nudity, which allows Wheeler to get off a one-liner about a hastily-consummated sex act (“Wasn’t that the best 15 seconds of your life?”).
Stephen shows concern about phone calls to his cell, including a disturbing one about the soldier whose friendship — it is intimidated — he may have cultivated under false pretenses.
Still, Dohrn merely skims the surface of the two protagonists, putting the issues at the center of the action more than the characters.
It’s problematical what director Bridget Kathleen Leary could have done to combat that, and both Wheeler and Allen do a good job with what the cards they’ve been dealt
The play’s structure is sound — indeed carefully and deliciously plotted, and there are two well-thought-out twists that together will clearly spell out the consequences when transparency trumps all.
“Muckrakers” raises some questions that society as a whole has yet to answer. And governments — and even private citizens, to be honest — shudder at the thought of what the next Snowden or even the next North Korean hacker might reveal.
The New Repertory Theatre production of Zayd Dohrn’s “Muckrakers.” Directed by Bridget Kathleen Leary. Part of the Next Rep Black Box Festival, in the Black Box Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through Feb. 1. http://www.newrep.org.