MAD MEN Peter Jay Fernandez, left, and Arliss Howard portray top editors of The New York Times in "CQ/CX."
WHEN The New York Times had its 15 minutes of scandal, back in 2003, those of us who worked for the paper (I was on contract then) figured the tale would have to be made into, at the very least, a TV movie. And a few of us speculated about casting, but we got only as far as choosing Donald Faison (who was then playing a young doctor on the sitcom "Scrubs") to play Jayson Blair. But -- surprise -- the story was turned into an Off Broadway play instead.
"CQ/CX" tells the story of Blair, a young (27 at the time) Times reporter who apparently couldn't be bothered with interviewing people or even traveling to the cities where he was supposed to interview them. He just made up quotes and settings and a lot of facts, and The Times, being accustomed to a certain amount of integrity from its journalists, published them. But Blair was found out, and it ended not only his newspaper career but that of Howell Raines, the paper's executive editor (The Times's equivalent of editor in chief), who had championed him.
THE TIMES has reviewed the play ("Reporting on an Age of Anxiety"), of course. Or rather, the editors assigned an outsider -- Frank Rizzo, who normally writes about theater for The Hartford Courant -- to review it. This is standard practice when the Paper of Record is part of the story. (Most often, though, it's a case of reviewing a book written by a Times reporter or editor.)
I WILL say only that it is a polished production, directed by David Leveaux, a Broadway golden boy, with smart scenic design by David Rockwell. It's presented by the Atlantic Theater Company, which has a sterling reputation. The playwright is Gabe McKinley, who, we're told, used to work at The Times as a news assistant. I don't recall ever meeting him, but I did know his brother Jesse McKinley, when we were both in the paper's Culture department. So I can vouch for the fact that this was an inside job.
THE publicists didn't invite me to "CQ/CX," but I snuck in as the guest of a member of the Drama Desk Awards nominating committee at a Saturday matinee. Afterward, people asked me if the characters were based on real people.
YES. Jay Bennett (Kobi Libh) is based on Blair. The youthful publisher, Junior (David Pittu), is inspired by Arthur Sulzberger Jr., The Times's publisher, who has a nickname but it is definitely not Junior. Hal Martin (Arliss Howard), the editor with the Southern accent, is the stand-in for Raines. And his managing editor, Gerald Haynes (Peter Jay Fernandez), represents Gerald Boyd, Raines's real-life managing editor. (Both Boyd and Blair were African-American, and race did become an issue in this case of journalistic fraud.) There are others, but I wasn't close enough to the situation to know exactly what actions represented Jon Landman's or others'.
MY two favorite parts of McKinley's work are the title and a small animal.
"CQ/CX" is resoundingly apt.
IN journalism, CQ stands for cadit quaestio, Latin for "the question fails." When you see CQ after a name or a date or whatever in a manuscript or computer file, it means "Yes, this is correct, although you may think it isn't. So just drop the subject right now and get on with your other work."
AND CX is an abbreviation for correction, that unpleasant but necessary newspaper practice of saying to readers, "Sorry, but that thing we printed yesterday was wrong." So McKinley has ingeniously called his play the equivalent of "Absolutely Correct/Absolutely Wrong."
FINALLY, there's the moose. I was at that so-called town hall meeting in a Times Square movie theater (this was before the new building that the staff moved into in 2007 and its glamorous Times Center auditorium) where Raines and Sulzberger talked to the paper's employees about what had happened. What I remember vividly was Raines's repeat of the term "the Blair affair" as if he really liked the sound of it (the name never caught on) and a stuffed moose. The fuzzy toy was supposed to symbolize the things we were reluctant to talk about, the elephant in the room, but it didn't quite do the job. Sure enough, "CQ/CX" remembers. And the moose makes an impressive Off Broadway debut.
"CQ/CX," by Gabe McKinley, directed by David Leveaux, Atlantic Theater Company, Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street, (212) 279-4200, ticketcentral.com.