As an attempt to improve on "Scoop," the devastatingly funny Evelyn Waugh novel about British journalists bumbling through an incomprehensible African war, "Night and Day" is a mistake.
But as an improvement on the argument for freedom that Tom Stoppard made in "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour," this somewhat funny new play of his about British journalists bumbling through an incomprehensible African war is a success.
"EGBDF" came out squarely for freedom of speech and against the involuntary confinement of dissidents by a totalitarian state. "Night and Day," in arguing the merits of a free press, is not such a black-and-white job. Abuses of the press, from inaccuracies to trashiness, along with arguments for and against milionaire ownership and closed-shop reporters' unions, are set forth before it's concluded that "information is light."
"Night and Day" is more of a conventional play than Stoppard's recent works. It even seems as if the good lines were written for the play, rather than the play's having been written to display unrelated good cracks. And it has such standard theatrical attractions as an energetic star, Maggie Smith; a double to fool the audience about where she is; lots of dry ice representing morning mist, and a realistic Jeep being driven across the stage.
It's all very entertaining, what with Maggie Smith slinking around imitating old movies and talking ironically to herself. (Her heavenward eyeballs during soliloquies suggested, at first, that she might be addressing God, but that turned out not to be the case.)
This makes it too bad to invite Waugh comparison. "Scoop" is a classic of its kind, and "Night and Day" has the brittleness but not the wittiness. An African president defines "a relatively free press" as being "edited by one of my relatives," and it is said that in the English version of Monopoly, "Fleet Street is yellow and rather cheap." There's nothing wrong with these -- as long as you don't compare them with every journalist's favorite satire.
Night And Day -- At the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theatre through November 17.