January 30, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) — For those not acquainted with the phrase “yellow journalism,” it refers to sensationalizing the news with overly dramatic headlines intended to grab readers and sell the most papers.

That’s the subject of “What The Public Wants,” a comedy by Arnold Bennett that satirizes tabloid journalism in 1906 London. The play opened Thursday night at the Mint Theater in a witty, well-acted production; director Matthew Arbour is faithful to the original material, which is clever and surprisingly contemporary more than a hundred years after Bennett wrote it.

The play features Sir Charles Worgan, (Rob Breckenridge) a self-made millionaire and newspaper mogul of dubious morality. He owns more than 40 daily papers, many of them narrowly focused, (Billiard Ball, The Pleasant Sunday Afternoon Record.) Sir Charles is so obsessed with his bottom line that he would even stoop to war-mongering to increase sales of his main newspaper, the Daily Mercury.

His guiding principle is “Give the public what it wants,” and he describes himself, proudly and without irony, as, “a manufacturer, just like the fellow that sells soap.” He is more than happy to manufacture news, believing that “supply must meet demand.”.

Breckenridge is versatile and robust, portraying his character as earnest, hard-charging and ruthless, yet able to become almost likable and sentimental at times.

The arrival of his character’s long-lost brother, Francis, early in the play allows Sir Charles to relate his entire success story, which is most helpful for the audience. Francis, nicely portrayed with a slightly mocking, yet helpful and warm attitude by Marc Vietor, seems to possess a solid moral compass, unlike his brother. While clearly admiring his brother’s success, Francis casts a wary eye on Sir Charles’ more peculiar attitudes.

Ellen Adair is sweetly practical as Emily Vernon, the widow to whom Francis introduces to his brother in order to help him move into polite society. Emily, who knew the Worgans in their youth, is also an actress, though not a good one. Soon Sir Charles is funding and running the theater where she works, in order to impress “the intellectuals,” although he blithely ignores the artistic side of things.

The supporting cast is uniformly good, with Jeremy Lawrence quite funny in three different, fairly histrionic roles, while Birgit Huppuch is glamorously sly as a down-to-earth leading lady. Douglas Rees shades his character, Kendrick, who is Sir Charles’ right-hand man, with more compassion than his boss.

With the help of the Mint’s customary high-quality production values, and elegant costuming by Erin Murphy, the audience is transported to a 1906 wood-paneled news executive’s office. Given today’s Internet-fueled appetite for scandal, the continued resonance of Bennett’s satiric work is ensured.