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Breaking the Story

Theatre Review by James Wilson - June 4, 2024

Louis Ozawa and Maggie Siff
Photo by Joan Marcus
To date, more than one hundred journalists and media workers have been killed in the Israel-Gaza war. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international advocacy organization, reports that the current conflict has resulted in an unprecedented number of casualties among war correspondents, photojournalists, and camera operators, but these victims are part of a long and tragic legacy of fallen journalists. Alexis Scheer's Breaking the Story, now playing at Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theater, depicts the perils associated with reporting from the frontlines and addresses the collateral damage afflicting their loved ones. Fittingly, the play concludes with a final, moving tribute to journalists killed while reporting from war zones.

Directed proficiently by Jo Bonney, Breaking the Story begins quite literally with a bang. (Darron L West provides the unnerving sound design and Elaine J. McCarthy's projections convey the equally unsettling visuals of a city under attack.) Marina (Maggie Siff), a television reporter for an American news channel, and her cameraman, Bear (Louis Ozawa), are filming from a bombed-out structure in an unnamed country during an unidentified war. The situation is dire, and Marina vows that if she survives, she'll make some significant changes, including being a better mother to her 18-year-old daughter Cruz (Gabrielle Policano, spirited and terrific), an aspiring rock star back home in the States.

The setting transforms abruptly, and Marina is luxuriating in the lush, green backyard of her new, very expensive home in posh Wellesley, Massachusetts. (Myung Hee Cho's scenic design and Jeff Croiter's lighting adroitly shift from hellish to idyllic contexts while periodically manifesting Marina's fractured mental state using abstracted set pieces and flashes of light. Emilio Sosa's costumes efficiently differentiate the intersecting worlds of the play.) Marina is in town to receive a prestigious lifetime achievement award, and since her closest friends and family members will be visiting for the weekend, she and Bear spontaneously decide to get married and have a big wedding party.

Scheer's play takes place, according to the program, "Right now, in the future, or maybe it already happened," and it intermingles violent war images with scenes of domestic and romantic comedy. For instance, when Marina and Bear announce their intentions, Marina's closest friend Sonia (Geneva Carr, who applies her expert comic timing to dazzling effect), a wealthy, take-charge Republican socialite, immediately gets to work planning the celebratory "elopement" for the couple. Also on hand is Marina's riotous mother Gummy (the priceless and loveable Julie Halston), whose chief hobby appears to be collecting boyfriends in her Florida retirement community. She boasts: "Well, there's Robert. He's my buddy at the pool. His tan is borderline melanoma, but he is sexy. Then Jimmy, who takes me to the casino on Tuesdays and Thursdays so I can get my steps in. Mike lives on my floor, so he's really just a matter of convenience."

Added to the mix are some familial tensions, which are exacerbated by the appearance of Marina's ex-husband and Cruz's father Fed (Matthew Saldívar, suitably and slyly unctuous). Rounding out the assemblage of guests is Nikki (Tala Ashe, devilishly devious), an aggressive and crafty journalist who might have some incriminating information about Marina's meteoric rise in the ranks.

Breaking the Story ambitiously weaves tonal disparities among the plot threads, and these draw attention to the apparent psychic disconnects Marina encounters. There are moments, for example, when she appears to be a ghostly outsider in the surrounding events, and at one point, she replays a conversation when it doesn't go the way she wants. Marina's periodic mental glitches and the play's melding of the traumatic and comic hint at an existential dark absurdism and a precarious dreamscape, but the play doesn't successfully negotiate the discordant elements. Contributing to this issue is that Scheer's script, which runs eighty minutes in playing time, tends to skim the surface rather than dig deeply into the characters' psyches.

Additionally, there is a late-play revelation that explains the origin of Marina's noticeable facial scar, yet the events surrounding it do not seem all that shocking nor particularly compromising. The ending, which will not be disclosed here, is something of a letdown since the play has telegraphed the outcome throughout.

While some of the dramaturgical components give off a whiff of old news, Breaking the Story still has a lot going for it. Chief among the assets is Siff, who is completely credible and moving as a fearless foreign correspondent as well as a flawed and vulnerable mother. She and Ozawa, her affable co-worker and lover, make a compelling duo. Despite the play's drawbacks, Siff and company offer a potent reminder of the rippling and devastating costs of war and the price paid for getting the story.

Breaking the Story
Through June 23, 2024
Second Stage Theater
Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: