The list of Rupert Murdoch’s business conquests is long. “Rupert” feels even longer.
A deal-by-deal account of the media titan’s voracious career, during which he’s gobbled up everything from a small newspaper in Perth, Australia, to 20th Century Fox, “Rupert” puts a cheeky face on its chronological survey of Murdoch’s relentless march. But playwright David Williamson becomes so preoccupied with comprehensiveness that the play itself takes on a quality of relentlessness. The sensation here is of being assailed by endless detail from an annotated r
The play, from Australia’s Melbourne Theatre Company, where it debuted last summer, is an entry in the Kennedy Center’s World Stages international theater festival, which over the next few weeks is hosting 15 productions from around the world. This one, directed with a breezy cartoonishness by Lee Lewis, is strictly for those with an abiding curiosity about this world-class shopaholic whose oversized cart includes the New York Post, Fox News, the Times of London and the Wall Street Journal.
Over the course of 21 / 2 hours in the Eisenhower Theater, we are regaled with stories of Murdoch’s marauding style of leadership. Oddly, though, for a play told from the billionaire’s own perspective, we don’t learn much about him that can’t be gleaned from a Harvard Business School case study. There isn’t much evidence here of an interior life. (And maybe that’s the point.)
What we do get, fairly predictably, is a portrait of consummate smugness, of a man who thinks little of the executives and politicians — especially the politicians — who work for him or angle for his support. “This is my story, told my way,” Murdoch announces, in the guise of the agreeably laconic Sean O’Shea, who shrugs his shoulders and rolls his eyes as if dealing with mere mortals were a waste of his time. To play his younger self, O’Shea’s Murdoch “casts” Guy Edmonds, an actor with a dreamboat appearance that suggests that Murdoch does have an active imagination.
Ultimately, the idea of “Rupert” emanating from Murdoch’s own consciousness comes to seem a cop-out, a device allowing “Rupert” to treat every supporting character (and there are more than 60 of them, embodied by six hard-working ensemble members) with equal and monotonous disdain. For a man with uncanny antennae for the potential in vulnerable media properties, this Murdoch thinks of his allies and adversaries only in tired caricatures: Ronald Reagan (Bert LaBonte), for instance, is a strutting Marlboro man; Tony Blair (Simon Gleeson) is a mincing suck-up; Margaret Thatcher (Marg Downey), a blustery battle-axe. Through the play’s overactive turnstile, the stick figures pass — media and government and financial people, famous and obscure, all advising Murdoch that no, that absolutely cannot be done, and then watching, mouths agape, as he does it.
Like guests at a dinner party seated next to the fellow who from appetizer to dessert gives you the story of his entire life, we get accounts of every major Murdoch acquisition, boiled down to sketch-show vignettes, performed on designer Stephen Curtis’s utilitarian set, resembling an all-purpose TV studio. Murdoch’s purchase of the New York Post from owner Dolly Schiff is portrayed as an awkward seduction, as Dolly (Gleeson again) swoons over Murdoch’s vow to uphold the paper’s progressive tradition. Better are the intimations in other interludes of the appreciation of the Average Joe that Murdoch turned into a business model, providing glimpses of a man who came to dominate the corporate shark tank by indulging the appetites of the littlest fish.
“If it takes a little bit of crassness to become the most powerful man in the country, so be it,” Murdoch says. The marriages and scandals are chronicled here, too, in a way that allows some passing note to be taken of the toll of the Murdoch style. Although the mogul counts among his dubious achievements pioneering the use of nude photos in his down-market tabloids, he himself must wait for a more nuanced exposure than the one-dimensional “Rupert” provides.
By David Williamson. Directed by Lee Lewis. Sets and costumes, Stephen Curtis; lighting, Niklas Pajanti; composer, Kelly Ryall; choreography, Andrew Hallsworth. With Marg Downey, Daniela Farinacci, Simon Gleeson, Bert LaBonte, HaiHa Le, Scott Sheridan. About 21 / 2 hours. Tickets, $29-$69. Through Saturday at John. F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.