NEW YORK — Our British cousins, God love ’em, can’t seem to get enough of journalism in the footlights. Over the years, there have been newspaper plays on London stages both great (David Hare and Howard Brenton’s “Pravda” with Anthony Hopkins) and not-so-wonderful (Jeffrey Archer’s “Exclusive” with Paul Scofield and Eileen Atkins).
Even as mighty a playwright as Tom Stoppard (the war-correspondent play “Night and Day”) and as august an institution as the National Theatre have weighed in on the moral condition of the press. The National did it in 2014 with Richard Bean’s “Great Britain,” a play about a phone-hacking scandal at a tabloid much like the one presided over by that media figure of endless fascination, Rupert Murdoch.
So here comes another, focused yet again on Murdoch and the transformational effect he’s had on how people consume the news in the modern age, on both sides of the Atlantic. “Ink” it is called, an engrossing, richly detailed play that had its official opening Wednesday at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. It stars the magnetic Jonny Lee Miller as an editor converted rabidly to tabloid sensationalism and Bertie Carvel of “Matilda”-the-musical fame as Murdoch, learning in the late ’60s how to tack to the coordinates of readers’ baser instincts.
That the play is getting an airing on Broadway presents a bit of a dare to an American audience: Do we care that much about infiltrating the mind of an editor? Aside from “The Front Page,” Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht’s vintage Chicago newspaper comedy, the subject has never been quite the popular stage fodder here that it has been there — though such movies as “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight,” and even “The Post,” have shown that the drama of getting the story can have a satisfying arc for the big screen.
Based on Graham’s skillful treatment and the imaginative embrace of director Rupert Goold, “Ink” should be able to find an interested subset of playgoers, at least among those who want to understand the roots of the winning Murdoch formula. The play, set in 1969, concentrates on the Australian publisher’s acquisition of a dying British rag, the Sun, and its metamorphosis under Miller’s Larry Lamb into a daily clearinghouse of sex and gossip. But it also establishes a template for the raw, red-meat style that Murdoch would carry over to the New York Post and, even more significantly, Fox News.
“Ink” posits that it was Lamb — based on a real tabloid editor — who schooled Murdoch in the ways of wooing the average British workingman and -woman with sensational stories and, ultimately, with the daily feature that was the Sun’s crowning salacious coup: a photo of a bare-breasted model. That so much energy went into the creation of content of so little merit is one of the ironies of “Ink”: Miller, exuding the gung-ho single-mindedness of a tabloid Joan of Arc, gathers his staff around an easel for endless spitballing. The matter at hand is always, how low can they go? Lower it seems than is readily fathomable: When the wife of Murdoch’s British right-hand man is kidnapped and held for ransom, Miller’s Lamb doesn’t even pause to consider the ethics of exploiting the mystery and anguish.
Graham fills out the story — on a stage piled mountain-high by designer Bunny Christie with the detritus of a scruffy newsroom — with tidbits about the romance of the business. A smart sequence that runs through how a story goes from typewriter to hot type to newsprint is highly entertaining, but perhaps largely to those, like me, with an enduring affection for how news is “made.” The actors who play Lamb’s newsroom acolytes — among them Tara Summers, Robert Stanton, Bill Buell, Eden Marryshow and Andrew Durand — are uniformly superior. Michael Siberry and Rana Roy prove especially good as the old-guard editor of the reigning Fleet Street tabloid that the Sun topples and the model whom Lamb coaxes into the debut role of the nude Sun pinup girl.
The impressive Carvel portrays Murdoch as sly and ruthless, but Graham’s idea is not a caricature by any means; the publisher is a scrupulous businessman in this incarnation, one who even evinces initial squeamishness about some of the shabby innovations Lamb wants to introduce. If the gutter is where readers wanted their news to wallow, “Ink” explains, Murdoch and company were content to lead them to it. Here’s hoping that lovers of plays and the news business will want to follow, too, to see how it all started to go down the drain.
Ink, by James Graham. Directed by Rupert Goold. Sets and costumes, Bunny Christie; lighting, Neil Austin; music and sound, Adam Cork; projections, Jon Driscoll. With David Wilson Barnes. About 2½ hours. $79-$279. Through June 23 at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York. 212-239-6200. telecharge.com.