A newspaper newsroom is a perfect setting to have a large cast of characters reel off entertaining stories, banter and butt heads and delve into personal and professional intrigue. In Jim Fitzmorris’ A Truckload of Ink, the reporters’ and editors’ routine is upstaged when they are blindsided by the biggest story of the day: the drastic reduction of their own paper’s publishing and operations.
In the boisterous first half of Act 1, retiring editor Fintan (Bob Edes Jr.) regales reporters with a war story and shares a bottle of whiskey on his last day in the office. There are as many as 13 characters onstage as the younger reporters, most played by NOLA Project members, listen with one ear, attend to stories breaking at City Hall and chide their beloved colleague. There’s an air of nostalgia in Fintain’s tale as he talks about an era when public drunkenness wouldn’t necessarily disqualify a candidate for public office. Young political reporter Billie (Natalie Boyd) objects to traces of old-world political incorrectness, society pages writer Beatrice Bell (Leslie Castay) recalls one candidate’s cheap cologne, and contentious political columnist Bevin (A.J. Allegra) calls Fintan an old blowhard. Director Beau Bratcher so ably orchestrates the blitz of crosstalk, competing conversations and interruptions that at times it seems too quiet when everyone is listing to one speaker. Even though there are 14 characters, there is a clear sense of most of their personalities and how the changes affect them, and the entire cast helps make the workplace chaos convincing.
A consulting outside “efficiency expert” (Tracey Collins) also is listening to the stories and is the occasional recipient of resentful barbs. When the reporters realize the paper is about to downsize, she helps articulate some of the criticisms offered about why the paper is in its current situation.
The newspaper is unnamed, but it is New Orleans’ large daily newspaper, and many characters bear strong resemblances to people who worked at The Times-Picayune, although many plot points are wholly fictionalized, such as the drunken mayoral candidate. It’s an unavoidable pleasure, at least for someone working in local media, to separate fact from fiction. (One reporter left the paper to write for a TV show about a New Orleans neighborhood, echoing work done by Lolis Eric Elie. The food critic is offered a prestigious fellowship, as Brett Anderson was.) But everyone can enjoy the caustic asides various reporters make about New Orleans and its denizens, from the Knights of Comus to newly arrived hipsters. There is some irony to the fact that so much is voiced by actors who look more like young hipsters than mid-career reporters, a point underscored as many characters throw bags over a shoulder like bike messengers.
Fitzmorris has written several recent works about contemporary New Orleans, including Urban Education Smackdown, about public schools, and From a Long Way Off, about post-Hurricane Katrina recovery. Truckload touches on politics and corruption, the changing makeup of the city and the plight of newspapers in the digital age. The latter isn’t an obituary but a wider debate corporate downsizing and technological change. And the play comes full circle, showing how individuals are affected by those changes.
With fast-paced dialogue by astute and colorful characters, the play is very entertaining on the surface, and it’s engaging on a deeper level as it exposes the ways politics, business and journalism intersect. Newspaper journalism is sometimes called the first draft of history, and like many drafts, sometimes more perspective is required. Truckload could barely be any more timely or local a story, but it’s a remarkable and entertaining play that will likely hold up very well over time.
A Truckload of Ink
7:30 p.m. Wed.-Sat.
University of New Orleans Performing Arts Center, Robert E. Nims Theatre, 2000 Lakeshore Drive, (504) 280-7469