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BEIJING — As far as dramatic timing goes, the text message from the powers that be announcing the sudden cancellation of a post-performance discussion of “Top Secret: Battle for the Pentagon Papers” was, well, perfectly timed.
The message, sent to the cellphone of the play’s producer on Friday night, warned of “unforeseen consequences spreading beyond the theater,” should the audience at Peking University be allowed to openly discuss the work, which delves into delicate matters like press freedom, power-hungry political leaders and the Nixon administration’s desire to quash information it deemed embarrassing.
“It was rather ironic but it drove home the issues in the play,” the producer, Alison Friedman, said moments after the house lights came up, and the crowd, many of them students at Peking, China’s most prestigious university, drifted away. “I can’t say we were surprised.”
Perhaps the bigger surprise was that this spare, fast-paced docudrama, performed in English and financed partly by the American Embassy, was even staged in a country whose skittish cultural czars regularly block movies, books and plays they find objectionable.
In late August, for example, the authorities canceled “Dr. Sun Yat-sen,” a sumptuous new opera about that Chinese revolutionary that was weeks away from opening at the National Center for Performing Arts. Officials described the action as a “postponement,” but they told its producers that the opera was politically problematic.
Susan Albert Loewenberg, the producing director of L.A. Theater Works, which shepherded “Top Secret” to China through a thicket of logistical, financial and bureaucratic obstacles, said there were many times during the two-and-a-half-year odyssey when she thought the production was dead.
“Frankly, I’m amazed we got this far,” she said. “Then again, we still have two nights to go.”
If the journey of “Top Secret” holds any lessons for Western theater producers seeking to reach Chinese audiences, it is this: Have a seasoned guide, avoid the country’s most high-profile performance spaces and be prepared for countless frustrations and disappointments. American companies that had supported L.A. Theater Works in the past refused to back its China production; permits did not materialize until the last moment; and an earlier panel discussion planned for Guangzhou was also scotched.
But the rewards, as Ms. Loewenberg and Geoffrey Cowan, an author of the play, tell it, have been immense. During its 10-day run “Top Secret” has played to sold-out audiences in Shanghai and Guangzhou, with many performances punctuated by shouts of approval from the audience and standing ovations.
Perhaps most gratifying for the producers was that those audiences were almost entirely Chinese and young, many of whom learned about the production through weibo, the Twitter-like microblog service that has revolutionized the way Chinese communicate with one another — including expressions of displeasure over government malfeasance.
“It was a refreshing contrast to the U.S., where you’re always playing to 60-year-olds and struggling to reach younger audiences,” Ms. Loewenberg said.
Communist Party officials could be forgiven for viewing the play through their gimlet eyes as an unalloyed slice of American propaganda, even if the creators of “Top Secret” had no such intentions. Written by Mr. Cowan and Leroy Aarons, who died in 2004, it was first produced by L.A. Theater Works in 1991 as a radio play. Spanning several days, it dramatizes the showdown between the White House and The Washington Post as that paper balanced the threat of criminal prosecution against its desire to burnish its journalistic chops by publishing the Pentagon’s secret history of United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War.
The story begins on June 17, 1971, after a federal court has enjoined The New York Times — which had already published three installments based on the documents — from publishing any more. The Post promptly gets its hands on copies of the papers, and what follows is an exploration of the role of the press in keeping a secretive and manipulative government in check.
After a judge rules in the paper’s favor, a reporter gives a rousing valedictory about press freedom as a hedge against tyranny as John Lennon’s rousing anthem “Power to the People” bathes the house.
“I’ve played in a lot of theaters, but to have 1,400 people in China cheering for the little guy is subversive,” said Josh Stamberg, who plays Ben Bradlee, the Post’s hard-charging editor.
To get as far as it has, L.A. Theater Works relied on Ms. Friedman, whose company, Ping Pong Productions, specializes in taking international performing arts to China and Chinese troupes to the West. After nearly a decade living and working here, she has learned how to navigate a maze of permits and egos, when to massage cultural bureaucrats and, perhaps most important, whom to call when roadblocks suddenly appear.
Even though the unmistakable message of “Top Secret” is the importance of a free press and an independent judiciary in the face of a bullying government, the producers gingerly pitched their production as a Vietnam War-era contretemps between President Nixon and the press.
“They put the play in the ‘American history’ box,” Ms. Friedman said of the many officials who gave the production a green light. “We also chose low-profile partners. We didn’t want the government to think too heavily about the play.”
In the end it was low-level bureaucrats who stood in their way, especially when it came to the troupe’s final performances in Beijing, which end on Sunday. Although arranged months in advance, the Peking University show did not receive its required permit until the day before showtime.
Even then, the producers were stunned to learn they could not sell tickets. The permit, they were told, also limited the audience to 1,000, ensuring the theater was less than half full.
Although she had been told to steer clear of “sensitive topics,” Ms. Friedman said she was assured that the post-performance discussion would go ahead as planned, as it had in Shanghai. It was just after intermission when she received the disappointing text message. Later, as the cast was taking its bow and she was announcing the cancellation of the discussion, she could hear a university official exhorting a technician to kill her microphone.
It was too late. A sigh rose through the members of the crowd, but as they filed out of the theater, few expressed surprise.
“I thought the play was very meaningful,” Yin Wenhong, 27, a book editor, said with some hesitation as she left the building. “It would be nice if our government could open their minds and learn something from this play.”