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Stage Review

‘Muckrakers’ digs up secrets

Kahan James portrays Stephen and Kate Rogal plays Mira in Barrington Stage Company’s production of “Muckrakers.”

Kevin Sprague

Kahan James portrays Stephen and Kate Rogal plays Mira in Barrington Stage Company’s production of “Muckrakers.”

PITTSFIELD — Talk about a play that’s ripped from the headlines — and that anticipates a few headlines too.

“Muckrakers,’’ an absorbing if flawed drama by Zayd Dohrn now receiving its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company, explores the personal and political fallout from a whistleblower’s decision to leak classified documents. Sound familiar?

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Directed by Giovanna Sardelli, this 80-minute play is structured as a kind of mutual seduction involving Mira, a young American political activist, and Stephen, a British “hacker-journalist.’’ Stephen is not exactly a fugitive, but he is a man on the move from country to country, having enabled the publication of classified files leaked to him by a soldier outraged by the violence against innocents committed by US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

From the moment he and Mira stumble semi-drunkenly into her studio apartment in New York, Stephen, played by Kahan James, has sex on his mind. Mira, portrayed by Kate Rogal, seems primarily interested in the skinny on how Stephen got hold of all that secret information. Over a tense, talky, and revelatory evening, each pursues their respective goals.

The playwright, who teaches at Northwestern University, is the son of former Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. His credit in the playbill says he was “born underground and raised in New York City,’’ an apparent reference to the fact that he lived in hiding with his parents for the first few years of his life.

For the audience, it’s hard to ignore the buzz of fresh topicality surrounding “Muckrakers.’’ Though presumably inspired by the Wikileaks release of classified US documents in 2010 — Dohrn wrote “Muckrakers’’ last year, according to a Barrington Stage spokesman — the play has arrived as an even fresher controversy rages over former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s massive surveillance program.

“Muckrakers’’ grabs another chunk of the zeitgeist by dramatizing the conflicting demands of transparency and privacy in the digital age. Mira is such a believer in the public benefits of complete and utter transparency that she runs a website she describes as “an online agit-prop news source,’’ whose mission, she says, is to “publish secrets. Speak truth to power. Out closeted celebrities. Expose cheating CEOs. Implicate corrupt politicians.’’ Her rationale is high-minded — she cites Montaigne’s belief that “only with other people watching are we reminded always to do the right thing’’ — but might there be a personal motivation as well? Might she have secrets of her own?

Making the case for the value of privacy, paradoxically enough, is Stephen, even though he has become “a rock star,’’ in Mira’s words, by disseminating classified documents. “I don’t believe in state secrets,’’ he tells Mira. “That doesn’t mean I think all personal boundaries are irrelevant.’’

In dramatizing these issues, Dohrn’s script is generally smart and trenchant, but occasionally unfocused and prone to periods of drift. “Muckrakers’’ is undermined too by a fleeting but unmissable moment that signals a crucial plot twist.

Dohrn benefits from having Sardelli at the helm of his play. Directing last season’s gripping Barrington Stage production of Rajiv Joseph’s “The North Pool,’’ Sardelli demonstrated a knack for building and sustaining an air of what’s-next mystery, and she does it again here. Like “The North Pool,’’ “Muckrakers’’ involves a cat-and-mouse game between two characters and a crucial third one who is frequently referred to but never seen.

In Dohrn’s play, that character is Andy, the soldier-leaker. A communications expert, he had been stationed in Kandahar, where he had access to all kinds of classified correspondence. Now in prison, Andy may have leaked the documents to Stephen because he is in love with him.

But Stephen is more than a bit in love with himself. In James’s deft portrayal, Stephen comes across as alternately smooth and smarmy. Though willing to cultivate the wrath of the world’s most powerful nation, he is very nervous about being followed; the playwright is sophisticated enough to realize that not all crusaders are heroic. “People have their contradictions, Mira. It’s what makes us human,’’ Stephen says. Yep, and James’s performance embodies those contradictions.

Rogal, for her part, does an artful job conveying the fervor and certitude of a young ideologue who defines morality very broadly, who does not see any gray area, and who, indeed, is disinclined to acknowledge there is any such thing. It’s an unbending code that Mira lives by, and you have to admire her principles, though Stephen might not necessarily see it that way.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.
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