In the first scene of playwright Steven Leigh Morris' new play "Red Ink," our protagonist makes a cri-du-coeur:
"What was he thinking?...Why would a successful business man do to his own property?"
Here’s the backstory. For over 25 years, Steven Leigh Morris worked for the LA Weekly. It's not an overstatement to say that at the height of his influence as their theater editor and critic, he was the champion of LA's intimate theatre scene. Most weeks, the Weekly ran not only his front-of-section review but substantial reviews of another half dozen shows. It was the go-to paper if you wanted theatre coverage in LA ... or music coverage ... or to read Jonathan Gold's food columns. Like the Village Voice in New York and alt-weeklies across the country, the LA Weekly was a cultural force that you grabbed free every Thursday.
So when Steven Leigh Morris' newspaper man protagonist agonizes about the destruction of an institution, that institution is a broad amalgam of alt-weeklies. Our protagonist is the newly promoted editor of New York free paper. You could read it as the Village Voice or the LA Weekly or a dozen other newspapers. It's a stand-in for all of them in one way or another.
The play's machinery is built around flashbacks that take us to a time before the paper's demise and that urgent question. In that earlier timeline, our fresh editor has just been installed when the paper was bought by the "Our Times" chain out of Florida. Our antagonist is Earl Glory, the brains behind this debt-ridden takeover effort of all these papers. He's the "he" from the question "What was he thinking?"
Now, you should know that when our protagonist asks this dire question, it is from the inside of a mental institution. That's where our play is set. This editor of an alt-weekly is so destroyed by this assault on journalism that it literally drives him crazy. The action of the play is actually the other inmates of this particular asylum playing the characters as part of an elaborate drama therapy scheme. Score one for self-awareness.
The challenge with Mr. Morris' script is a bit like a battle between a dramatist and a journalist. The dramatist senses the need for theatrical gestures like conventions broken and dramatic metaphor. The journalist wants to get to the bottom of the story. Unfortunately, neither really succeeds.
The play's question, "what the hell happened to the LA Weekly?" is a powerful one that's worth chasing and telling. It feels like that's what the play wants to be about until an unheard editor's voice recognizes that's not fresh news. Fresh news, or as it's often called these days "fake news," is the assault on the press more generally. It's not just the weeklies, it's paywalls and ever shrinking newsrooms and new non-profit models. That's what the play tries to shift to about two-thirds of the way through but at that point we've lost the story.
Go see this play to pay homage to Mr. Morris and the cultural institutions that we lost with the demise of the alt-weeklies. But don't go thinking you'll get an answer to why it all happened. That, for now, is still a tragic mystery.