Shatnered Glass: Shatner the Man Is Delightful, but Shatner’s World, the Happy, Sappy Show, Can Be Dull

<em>CQ/CX</em> is all the news that’s fit to print—and little more

Mr. Shatner. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Latter-day William Shatner—Capt. James T. Kirk boldly gone into the Priceline era, with his self-parodying pitchman’s routines and so-bad-they’re-not-so-bad, spoken-word-meets-crooner albums—is a tough one to pin down. Is he a pretentious buffoon or a canny showman, an oblivious narcissist or an in-on-the-joke ironist?

Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It, the one-man show he brought to Broadway last week, presents a strong argument for a third possibility: He is all of the above.

Commanding the stage of the Music Box, where he’s putting in a limited run of 19 performances over two and a half weeks before taking his shtick on tour, Mr. Shatner displays the wisdom, confidence, flair and, yes, burgher’s girth earned by a long and successful showbiz career. In a blazer, cardigan and pressed, voluminous jeans, he proves himself a marvelous entertainer, a charming raconteur, and a deft lampooner of his own blowhard persona, starting with that goofily grandiose title.

This is a man who knows we’re on to him, and at his best he adopts a tone of winking brio. He enters to portentous Star Trek music, followed by a lone, flickering spotlight—and then swiftly slaps away the obvious entrance. “No, no, everybody beams in,” he says, walking on from a wing. Over roughly 100 minutes, Mr. Shatner regales his enamored audience with highlights from his life story, peppering the tale with borscht-belt shtick, well-honed anecdotes and, finally, a song.

Sure, the 80-year-old actor gets tangled up on some of his lines, his jokes occasionally fail, and he might have a bit of difficulty readjusting the Aeron-like office chair he deploys throughout the show, moving it around the stage, to sit on, recline on, pop up from and, occasionally, ride like a motorcycle. But he knows his way around a joke, and, like the best pros, he keeps his audience in the palm of his hand, even when a joke is bombing. (That Aeron, incidentally, does excellent supporting work, but in this competitive season the choreographed pair in An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin will have to win the Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Chair.)

And yet. While the man seems delightful, his show can be dull. Mr. Shatner has constructed a script, such as it is, that is a sometimes-incoherent collection of scattered biography, ample greatest-hits clips, and way too much detail on some not particularly interesting episodes in his biography. (It is directed by Scott Faris, who did Bette Midler’s The Showgirl Must Go On in Las Vegas and productions of Chicago around the world; no book writer is listed.) If he’s a charmer when he’s ad-libbing one-liners, he can be tedious when he’s telling yet another story about some forgotten moment in his career or, worse, waxing philosophical on the inevitability of death. He delivers an evening that is happy and sappy, but one that is neither insightful nor fully compelling.

In Shatner’s World, then, Mr. Shatner is both amusingly self-mocking and wildly self-indulgent. And why not? The man is vast; he contains multitudes.

I should begin any discussion of CQ/CX, the new play by Gabe McKinley that dramatizes the 2003 Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times, by stipulating that I’m sure I followed that horror story—in which a young reporter was first caught plagiarizing a story and then revealed to have fabricated his biography, whereabouts and reporting over many months, ultimately bringing down the paper’s top two editors and deeply damaging its reputation—more closely than most. I was a media reporter and commentator when Mr. Blair’s schemes unraveled and throughout the aftermath; it was my job to follow such things.

But, still, this was a major, national news story, and an even bigger one in the newspaper-reading community of New York, which presumably overlaps very strongly with the theater-going community of New York. That’s what makes somewhat inexplicable the Atlantic Theatre Company’s decision to produce Mr. McKinley’s well-crafted but nearly stenographic recounting of Mr. Blair’s rise and fall, which opened last week at the Peter Norton Space. Director David Leveaux, a five-time Tony nominee, has given the play a handsome, fast-paced production that tries hard to build brewing-catastrophe tension, and the excellent cast delivers appealingly credible performances. But CQ/CX—the title employs journo-speak for a fact that has been checked and a fact needing correction—never presents as anything more than a highly polished historical re-enactment, a well-executed but schematic retelling of events we already know about.

Mr. McKinley—a former news clerk at The Times with two brothers who are reporters for the paper—goes out of his way to underline just how closely he’s cleaving to his facts, giving his characters names either identical to those of their real-life counterparts (“Jay” is the play’s antihero; “Gerald Haynes” stands in for Gerald Boyd as the managing editor) or close to them (the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., is a character called “Junior”; executive editor Howell Raines becomes “Hal Martin”). The details of Jay’s rise and fall hew precisely to those of Jayson’s, and the few attempts the play makes to examine his psyche or motivation echo those made in previous coverage of the story.

By the play’s end, with “Hal” leaving his newsroom in disgrace, off to go fishing, just as Mr. Raines did, Mr. McKinley has revealed himself to be a romantic about the nobility of journalism and the sacred role of The Times, as true a believer as anyone in the Times’s tower or the Journalism Building at Columbia. But, paradoxically, his stubborn devotion to facts —his insistence on retelling this history rather than exploring motivations, imagining what-ifs, or using Mr. Blair’s story as a jumping-off point for a purely fictional narrative—makes CQ/CX yesterday’s news. Shatnered Glass: Shatner the Man Is Delightful, but Shatner’s World, the Happy, Sappy Show, Can Be Dull