Donít know the term? You know the type. They insist, despite mountains of evidence, that the September 11, 2001, attacks were actually perpetrated by the Bush administration and some secret Jewish cabal. Theyíre the Rosie OíDonnells and Van Joneses of the world who insist fire canít melt steel, and that the reasons their questions arenít being answered isnít because someone is covering up something, but because everyone is covering up something. Along with the ďBirtherĒ movement of people demanding President Obamaís birth certificate, the ultimate in contemporary political delusion.
Amazingly, Underwood courts this crowd without actually setting his play in a post-9/11 world. In his alternate universe, thereís no Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush, yet the jittery paranoia they inspired nonetheless runs rampant. The ďconservative RepublicanĒ Presidential administration Underwood describes is utterly corrupt, domestically and internationally, and isnít above lying to, torturing, or driving to suicide its own constituents in order to forward its merciless aims. That the Presidentís greatest detractor is one of those favorite political theatre fantasy characters: a conservative who espouses no identifiable conservatives and thinks treason is justifiable if it ultimately brings down the Dastard-in-Chief.
Yes, The Brokenhearteds is one of those plays, professing bipartisan excitement and thoughtful discourse while ultimately being little more than a feel-good liberal frightfest. Yet if you can look beyond its demagogic transparency, you might discover that itís secretly a respectable play receiving, at the hands of director Pete Boisvert, an effective and embracing production.
Ideology aside, itís hard not to get swept up in the story of Peter Graves, a young journalist whose job running an election blog for a free Manhattan daily drops him into the center of a swirling, skyscraper-leveling controversy. His college friend, Ezra (Underwood), is the one whoís soured on the administration and is determined to get the word out that the countryís highest-ups have captured the number-one Middle-Eastern terrorist - but are only planning to make it public immediately before Election Day.
When Peter breaks the story early, you can be itís bad news for both, especially since both are inexpert at covering their tracks. Caught up in the collateral damage is another couple: Milan (Paco Tolson), a stand-up comedian, and his longtime girlfriend, Halle (Andrea Marie Smith), who reluctantly falls in love with Peter, and becomes both a pawn in the governmentís plan and a magnet for its worst agents.
Underwood deftly weaves his strands of story into a vast tapestry of deception and surprise that delivers plenty of legitimate suspense without relying on heaps of incomprehensible plot points to add complexity but sacrifice common sense. If Underwood occasionally overplays his cleverness or his loftiness - religious overtones, comprising a running gag about Peter interviewing God and a framing device of flipping through the verse-laden chapters of Peterís personal gospel, The Book of the Brokenhearteds - heís generally adept at regulating his tone and topics throughout, an achievement Boisvert manages with incisive staging that only loses its bracing locomotion during certain clumsy changes of Kaitlyn Mulliganís minimalist set.
The acting, too, is rich and confident, with Mihm believably guiding Peter from cocky smarm to full-shatter faithlessness as a shudder-inducing vision of the Good American Made Bad. Smith and Tolson squeeze from their roles a complete range of deceptively complicated feelings that make them victims of the saddest, most accidental sort. The imposing Jon Hoche is chilling as both American and Muslim terrorists of predictably unequal viciousness.
Only Underwood, as the Conservative in Name Only, fails to convince. He plays Ezra as neither uncorkably passionate or spiritually dead, but somewhere in the purgatory between that ensures you canít accept much of what he says or does. Itís here that the playwright and the actor become unfortunately indistinguishable: This sometimes occurs within a single line, as when Ezra expresses his frustration at the movement thatís left him behind with the detachment most children feel at the deaths of their Sea-Monkeys, and sometimes with the towering inconceivability of his climactic brandishing of a gun. At his own deposition. In a heavily secured government building. Immediately following a devastating terrorist bombing on American soil. Uh huh.
You are, of course, supposed to focus on the bigger picture: the emotional, spiritual, and sexual desolation thatís turning potential-packed young people into zombielike automatons incapable of eking out a fulfilling existence. But itís the details that should make the whole satisfying, and in his eagerness to make America and its Right-thinking pilots the unstoppable forces for evil, Underwood ensures his bounty of thrills are shallow and evanescent at best. He should take a lesson from Milan, who says at one point, ďAmbition without purpose will leave you brokenhearted.Ē The only audiences who wonít intimately relate to his sentiments while watching The Brokenhearteds are those who believe the complex interplay between the American left and the American right really can be boiled down to conspiracy theories.