'Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers'
History made palpable
By Diana Barth
Mar 18, 2010
NEW YORKWhether or not you were around in 1971, "Top Secret," with
text by Geoffrey Cowan and Leroy Aarons, will reawaken you to the
tense political climate surrounding the Vietnam War.
A 7,000-page document describing the true origins of the Vietnam War
had recently surfaced, and a battle ensued between the major
newspapers that wanted to inform the public and the political
factions, including President Richard Nixon, who would rather squelch
publication of the heretofore secret Pentagon Papers, as they came to be known.
Two major papers were competing to publish: The New York Times and
The Washington Post. But The Times was quickly slapped with an
injunction not to publish and they obeyed the edict. However, The
Washington Post had not yet been put to the test.
Herein lies the drama of "Top Secret." Post publisher Katharine
Graham (Kathryn Meisle) was ultimately the final arbiter in making a
decision whether or not to publish, but not without input from Post
senior editor Ben Bradlee (Peter Strauss), various journalists, and
cautious attorney Brian Kelly (Jack Gilpin, who, ironically, doubles
in the role of H. R. Haldeman).
The situation was fraught with danger for The Post and its employees:
the Nixon administration was charging treason. The major part of the
second act of "Top Secret" is taken up with the very real fears and
soul-searching experienced by those involved with the decision. In
fact, several journalists threatened to resign if the Papers were not
published. Finally, Graham gives the go-ahead.
The writers have utilized actual transcripts of the trial that was
held as well as recorded transmissions from Nixon himself.
Originally written as a radio playit was initially produced by L.A.
Theatre Works for National Public Radio, winning the Corporation for
Public Broadcasting's Gold and Silver Awards for best radio
production of the yearit was revised by Geoffrey Cowan for the
stage. I would quibble somewhat with the staging, or lack thereof, of
Act 1, for it is quite static with characters behind microphones;
however, it opens up more dramatically in Act 2, when the most vital
action takes place.
One cannot quibble with the actors, however. Under the meticulous
direction of John Rubinstein, the cast of 11 portrays 25 characters.
Standouts to my mind include Ms. Meisle, Peter Strauss, Larry Pine,
and James Gleason as the hard-nosed, finicky Judge Martin Peel.
Others in the cast are Diane Adair, Larry Bryggman, John Getz, Matt
McGrath, Russell Soder, and Peter Van Norden.
There is no doubt that the publication of the Pentagon Papers changed
the course of history: the Vietnam conflict could have been
prolonged, the Watergate break-ins might never have been discovered,
and Richard Nixon might never have resigned from the Presidency.
Obviously, an important event in American history, and a reminder for
vigilance, that makes for taut, important theater.
'Top Secret': Once upon a time, when newsprint ruled
By Michael J. Fressola
March 22, 2010
New York Theater Workshop wages 'Battle for the Pentagon Papers'
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. The youngest theater-goers who catch "Top
Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers" high school kids,
perhaps may be amazed to learn that once upon a time, newspapers
were the top watchdogs of government behavior.
Not only that, they were the first on the scene. In the early
1970s, television and radio journalists followed the ink lead. Other
media played catch up.
"Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers," a radio play
at the New York Theater Workshop, steps into a precedent-setting,
As the story (written by Geoffrey Cowan and the late Leroy
Aarons 19 years ago) starts, the New York Times has gone to press
with astounding information from whistle-blower Daniel Ellsburg,
revelations that make all of the Nixon administration's
pronouncements about the Vietnam War look wrong, stupid and
criminally duplicitous. It was fuel for the anti-war movement and a
kick in the beak for hawks.
But, the flow of inside info has been stanched for the time
being by court order.
Out maneuvered but battling, will the Washington Post circumvent
the impasse, run the critical accounts beat the Times at its own game
and cover itself in glory, without harming national security?
Underneath it all, it could be a matter of life and death.
Releasing classified information could compromise troops, spies,
operatives. If people are liable to die because a newspaper runs a
story, should it? Even if the story needs to be told for a hundred
How will tentative and well-behaved Post publisher Katherine
Graham acquit herself? Kathryn Meisle, who looks like a young Glynis
Johns, is lovely in the role, strong but ladylike throughout.
Directed crisply by John Rubinstein, the actors stand at
microphones (a deft back-up staff provides sound effects). They play
multiple characters: Graham, Ben Bradlee (her ambitious editor) and
Richard Nixon, hilarious, potty-mouthed and poisonously small-minded.
The excellent Larry Pine is a perfectly repulsive Tricky Dick.
You know going in that the good guys win, for the moment. But
the story, mostly adapted from transcripts, is so good that the drama
and suspense build effectively. We all know where "Hamlet" is headed,
but it doesn't prevent us from becoming attached to the story and
swept up in the suspense.
The show moves swiftly and has surprisingly sharp moments for a
stand-up-and-talk. You might cheer when the Post proves certain
matters that the government believes to be deeply secret are
practically common knowledge. Finally, "Top Secret" boils down to a
reporter who has done his homework.