NEW YORK POST
TABLOID TYCOON'S TALE BACK BY POPULAR DEMAND
January 28, 2011
The key character in “What the Public Wants” is a driven media tycoon who reaches millions via dozens of publications. Through them, he seeks to entertain the many and influence the mighty.
Not much has changed since Arnold Bennett wrote this in 1909. Now the play has been rescued from oblivion by the Mint Theater in a compelling, well-acted production that opened last night.
Bennett started off as a journalist and drew from that experience in his novels and plays. His model for Sir Charles Worgan, the lead of “What the Public Wants,” was Alfred Lord Northcliffe, who invented the tabloid press.
The show starts with Charles (Rob Breckenridge) being reunited with his brother Francis (Marc Vietor), who was AWOL for 19 years. The mild-mannered, cultured Francis stands in stark contrast to his brash sibling, a single-minded millionaire who keeps reminding everyone that his main preoccupation isn’t journalism but the bottom line.
As the action slowly unspools, it seems as if we’re in for tasteful-but-sleepy “Masterpiece Theater” — or rather “Semi-Obscure Theater.”
But then the play, ably directed by Matthew Arbour, switches gears. This coincides with the arrival of Emily Vernon (the vibrant Ellen Adair), a would-be actress who hails from the same boondocks as the Worgans.
She and Charles fall in love, despite the fact that she hangs out with artistic types and he’s suspicious of “intellectuals.” Bennett makes their relationship wonderfully complex and adult, and gradually adds layers to Charles himself. “I’ve got no moral axes to grind,” the magnate proclaims. “I’m just a businessman.” But his combustible mix of arrogance and insecurity makes him infinitely more interesting than your average entrepreneur.
Granted, Bennett isn’t so strong on plot, particularly when it comes to Francis.
But he has a way with zingers — Emily describes one of Charles’ papers as “so exciting. Like bread and jam, without the bread.” And his multifaceted characters are burdened with conflicting impulses and desires.
All of these people could easily be airlifted into our age of paparazzi and TMZ: The dilemmas and compromises Bennett presciently makes them confront haven’t aged one bit.