‘Corruption’ Review: Onstage, a Scandal’s Human Drama Is Muffled

“Corruption,” J.T. Rogers’s tantalizing new phone-hacking play, starts on Rebekah Brooks’s wedding weekend. In a village in the English countryside, the flame-haired power broker, one of Rupert Murdoch’s favorite tabloid editors, has drawn the cream of Britain’s political class to her celebration.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown is there, and so is David Cameron, the Tory who will succeed him. But Brooks (Saffron Burrows) is sequestered in conversation with her charmless boss, Rupert’s son James (Seth Numrich). He informs her that television and new media are the company’s focus now.

“Newspapers are a relic,” James says. So his contempt is already evident when he tells her that she is the new chief executive of News International, the Murdoch-owned British newspaper group. Congratulations?

It will be on Brooks’s watch, anyway, that a many-tentacled scandal erupts, with the revelation that her journalists clandestinely acquired the voice mail messages not only of celebrities and politicians but also of a missing child who was later found dead. Multiple arrests ensue, with accusations of phone hacking, police corruption and perverting the course of justice. Rupert Murdoch shuts down News of the World, his top-selling Sunday tabloids. Through it all, he remains loyal to Brooks.

As a news story evolving in real time, the scandal made for jaw-dropping reading. As a play, though, “Corruption” is uncompelling — counterintuitively so, given the inherent drama: the crimes, the coverup, the comeuppance (or not), the clashes of personality. Also the stakes, which include the well-being of a democracy in which one culture-shaping media magnate holds too much sway.

Tom Watson (Toby Stephens), a Labour member of Parliament as the scandal brews, is the central figure. (Murdoch, frequently mentioned, is a looming unseen presence.) Rumpled and besieged, Watson is determined to expose the widespread, under-the-radar operation: the surveillance, the intimidation, the gathering of secrets. The police, in the meantime, are oddly incurious about the voluminous records of a private investigator who they know hacked phones for News of the World.

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