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The Brokenhearteds

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Paco Tolson and Mike Mihm.
Photo by Daniel Winters.

Forget Generation Y, the Millenials, or whatever you want to call the generation of Americans who came of voting age as the 20th century came to a close. The Brokenhearteds is not, despite its claims and its subject matter, their play. Temar Underwood's taut, intense, and thoroughly ridiculous political thriller might just be the first play aimed squarely at Truthers.

Don't 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. They're the Rosie O'Donnells and Van Joneses of the world who insist fire can't melt steel, and that the reasons their questions aren't being answered isn't because someone is covering up something, but because everyone is covering up something. Along with the "Birther" movement of people demanding President Obama's 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, there's no Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush, yet the jittery paranoia they inspired nonetheless runs rampant. The "conservative Republican" Presidential administration Underwood describes is utterly corrupt, domestically and internationally, and isn't above lying to, torturing, or driving to suicide its own constituents in order to forward its merciless aims. That the President's 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 it's secretly a respectable play receiving, at the hands of director Pete Boisvert, an effective and embracing production.

Ideology aside, it's 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 who's soured on the administration and is determined to get the word out that the country's 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 it's 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 government's 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 Peter's personal gospel, The Book of the Brokenhearteds - he's 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 Mulligan's 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 can't accept much of what he says or does. It's 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 that's 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 that's turning potential-packed young people into zombielike automatons incapable of eking out a fulfilling existence. But it's 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, "Ambition without purpose will leave you brokenhearted." The only audiences who won't 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.

The Brokenhearteds
Through September 26
Wings Theatre, 154 Christopher Street at Greenwich Street
Performances: Th 8:00 pm, Fri 8:00 pm, Sat 8:00 pm, Sun 3:30 pm
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Smarttix

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