In ‘CQ/CX,’ the Jayson Blair scandal takes the stage, with less drama than the real thing

Hopper, Libii and Fernandez, in 'CQ/CX.' (Kevin Thomas Garcia)
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When a young reporter named Jayson Blair resigned from The New York Times in 2003 amid allegations that he’d plagiarized and fabricated stories for the paper, the scandal rocked the journalism world to its core. How had such an inexperienced writer duped the Paper of Record for so long—and would the paper’s reputation ever recover?

Beyond the details of the scandal, the charismatic and enigmatic Blair was also black—thus infusing race issues into the questions that followed his fall: Had he been promoted too easily and with too little review because he was black? Or had he been knocked down and shown the door too quickly because he was black? Or both?

So there are plenty of dramatic possibilities in the story and its central issues. And yet the drama we got, that same year, was the film Shattered Glass, about famous New Republic fabricator Stephen Glass.

Gabe McKinley’s new off-Broadway play CQ/CX—the title refers to fact-checkers’ marks—finally brings the Blair affairto the stage. (The names have been changed, ever so slightly: Jayson Blair is now Jay Bennett, for instance.) Unfortunately, despite a promising production by the Atlantic Theater Company, this is one case where the true story is more compelling than its adaptation.

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The first act takes us inside the newsroom, where people at the top and the bottom of the ladder are preoccupied with advancing their careers. Jay and his fellow twentysomethings are hungry reporters angling for bylines and better assignments. Meanwhile, the publisher is set to name a new executive editor (Hal Martin, sharing the same Alabama drawl as real-life former editor Howell Raines) and managing editor (Gerald Haynes here, Gerald Boyd in real life).

By the end of Act I—which here uses 9/11 as its turning point, although this chronological coincidence doesn’t seem terribly relevant to the narrative—Jay has been promoted despite the reservations of his section editor, who suspects he’s not up to snuff (in real life, this is probably meant to be Jonathan Landman, Jerry Gray or a mashup of the two). He’s taken under the wing of Hal and Gerald (the Times’ first high-ranking black editor), who have recently risen to the top of the masthead together.

The scandal itself doesn’t break until well into the second act—and even then, the actual details and breadth of the scandal are given short shrift in the rush to depict the personal toll and the professional fallout that followed. Friendships are destroyed, jobs are lost (including those of Hal and Gerald, who resign), and a newspaper’s reputation is sullied. Attacks ensue, personal and professional, and charges of racism flare on every side, yet the seemingly amoral Jay walks away from the whole thing relatively unscathed, still full of youthful cockiness and even ready to score a book deal exploiting his misdeeds.

Kobi Libii is sharp as Jay, a slippery yet likable guy who lies to everyone, including his close friends. His scenes with Gerald, played with quiet confidence by Peter Jay Hernandez, are particularly effective, as the two black journalists try to define their relationship: rivals, colleagues, or mentor and student.

With help from Ben Stanton’s smart lighting, David Rockwell’s efficient scenic design does a remarkable job of delineating a variety of spaces, from cramped cubicles to wide-open conference rooms to small apartments. And director David Leveaux tries to keep things moving, even as the script stretches on for too long.

CQ/CX has a great story as its inspiration, one that will continue to grip us for years to come, but in its execution this play is oddly proportioned—too long here, too short there. And in its effort to give nearly equal time to two stories at once, the rise and fall of Jay and the parallel rise and fall of Hal and Gerald, it makes a crucial mistake: These are not stories of equal dramatic weight. The resignation of the Times’ top editors is an interesting story for people who care deeply about newspapers and pay attention to mastheads; the fact that a young man with a questionable background could and would intentionally fool those editors—and many many readers—for so long, lying and cheating his way to the top of the nation’s most respected newspaper, abusing even the people who tried to help him the most, is a far grander story about the very core of human morality, and it is relevant to every American, even those who don’t read the Times.

By recounting this well-known recent scandal in almost journalistic, blow-by-blow fashion, the play falls into a trap of its own making. Anyone who already cared enough to follow the Blair case will leave CQ/CX without having learned much, and anyone who didn’t won’t have learned why they ought to be interested in watching this barely fictionalized version.

 CQ/CX is showing at the Atlantic Theater Company at the Peter Norton Space, 555 W. 42nd St. Tickets are $65. Call 212-279-4200.