'Corruption' review — power, pride, and publishers collide

Read our review of Corruption off Broadway, a new play written by J. T. Rogers and directed by Bartlett Sher at Lincoln Center Theater's Newhouse Theater.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Lincoln Center Theater has your ringside seats to the biggest cage match of 2010 at Corruption: Watch as Tom Watson (Toby Stephens), a British Parliament member slandered in the tabloids, challenges Rebekah Brooks (Saffron Burrows), tabloid editor-turned-CEO of mega-publisher News International. And stay tuned as politicians, lawyers, journalists, and private investigators enter the ring to collectively deliver the TKO: the revelation that NI, under Brooks's leadership, engaged in phone hacking, among other offenses, in the pursuit of story material and political support.

In theory, that's the story of J. T. Rogers's play. It's less so in practice, as Corruption is trying to be multiple things at once, and thus doesn't excel as any of them. At times, it's a David vs. Goliath story, with Watson collecting an eclectic band of professionals to go after one of the world's biggest media conglomerates — but all but Watson are underwritten. Other times, it is a character study of Watson, an antihero whose personal vendetta (supposedly) morphs into a larger pro-truth, anti-profit crusade — but although there are allusions to skeletons in his own closet, we never learn what they are.

At still other times, Corruption attempts to be a family drama, showing the effects of this mission on the spouses and children of Watson, Brooks, and pro-Watson lawyer Charlotte Harris (a standout Sepideh Moafi). As such, the play's three main women (including Watson's wife) are reduced to their roles as mothers and little else.

Corruption's most compelling threads are ones it doesn't seem to know it's exploring, chief among them being Watson's and Brooks's parallel character arcs. Both are flawed people who go to great lengths to keep their power and their pride in a ruthless media landscape. How far is too far? And how much does it matter if the post-Murdoch world of news, in which political, financial, and journalistic interests are tied up such that anyone's story is exploitable, keeps on turning regardless?

Corruption summary

News International, now known as News UK, is the British arm of the global publisher News Corporation, founded and led by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch until 2023. Corruption centers mainly on NI's now-defunct newspaper News of the World, the outlet most extensively involved in the scandal. In the years following the events of Corruption, multiple NI employees prosecuted — including editor Andy Coulson, who served less than five months in prison, and Brooks — were cleared of their charges.

Rogers based his version of events on Watson and Martin Hickman's book Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain. Hickman, a character in the play, was one of Watson's co-investigators who helped uncover and publicize the phone hacking scandal.

What to expect at Corruption

A program note from playwright J. T. Rogers states that Corruption is "a work of historical fiction" compiled from interviews, transcripts, and entirely imagined events. It's often guessable which parts are which, but as with today's news, it's up to each person to decipher the writers' biases (meaning Rogers, Watson, and Hickman alike) as their version of events unfolds. There is a clear focus on Watson and Brooks, as all the other actors besides Stephens and Burrows play multiple characters.

Situated above the stage is a ring of TVs, giving the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater the feel of a bustling modern newsroom, or else an unusually high-tech sports bar. (Multiple scenes set at the karaoke bar, where Tom and his colleagues go to let off steam, give this impression, too.) Instead of games, however, the TVs display news broadcasts — some seemingly archival, some featuring the production's actors — about the play’s events.

To the set designer (Michael Yeargen) and projection designers' (59 Productions/Benjamin Pearcy and Brad Peterson) credit, they don't feel overbearing or distracting. But while our phones are shut off for the play's 2.5 hours, the TVs are our peripheral reminder that you still can't escape the news — or, for that matter, Murdoch's News Corp.

What audiences are saying about Corruption

Corruption has a 75% approval rating on Show-Score, with audiences interested in the gripping true story offering varying opinions on how the play adapted it.

  • "It helps to have a basic knowledge of the events which took place at this time in UK but the narrative is clear enough to follow," writes Show-Score user Robert 7049.
  • "See it if you want to see a real story with as much intrigue or suspense as any spy thriller," says Show-Score user Yakmage.
  • "An impeccable cast may have a grand time doubling & tripling parts, [but] confusion often occurs as to who is who & when is when in the 1st hour," says Show-Score user Richard 129440.
  • "The play is surely too long, but it held my interest. Standouts were Dylan Baker as Tom Crone, top barrister for News International, and Saffron Burrows as chief villain Rebekah Brooks," wrote Adam Wildavsky on Show-Score.
  • "The subject is fascinating. And should have made a fascinating play. There’s quite a bit of speechifying, to the detriment of character development," said Show-Score user James 7298.

Who should see Corruption

  • The play has themes in common with others this season, like Doubt (the line between fighting for the greater good vs. a personal agenda) and The Connector (slippery journalistic ethics). Fans of those shows may find Corruption an interesting companion piece of sorts.
  • Corruption is tailor-made for political junkies and fans of political dramas, as it explores how political interests affect people's professional and personal lives alike.
  • Fans of the 2017 Tony Award-winning Best Play Oslo will be excited to see the reunion of that show's team: playwright J. T. Rogers and director Bartlett Sher, working with Lincoln Center Theater.

Learn more about Corruption off Broadway

With the help of sleek design and animated performances, Corruption stays watchable and engaging overall, even if its exploration of the link between politics, media, and profit registers as old news.

Learn more about Corruption. Corruption is at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater through April 14.

Photo credit: The cast of Corruption. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Originally published on

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