Review: Alexis Scheer’s Breaking the Story, an Ode to Journalism With a Nod to Ambrose Bierce

A new play about a war correspondent has a lot to say — it just doesn’t know how to say it.

Maggie Siff, Geneva Carr, Gabrielle Policano, Julie Halston and Tala Ashe in BTS
Maggie Siff, Geneva Carr, Gabrielle Policano, Julie Halston and Tala Ashe in Breaking the Story at Second Stage Theatre
(© Joan Marcus)

As a journalist (albeit one who whiles away the hours in theaters), I found myself of two minds about Alexis Scheer’s Breaking the Story, receiving its world premiere off-Broadway at Second Stage. On one hand, it’s a well-intentioned ode to war correspondents who risk their lives to tell the general public about the horrors in conflict zones. On the other hand, the critic in me understands that good goals don’t always make great plays. I really appreciate what Scheer is doing (or at least is trying to do), but I don’t think she’s figured it out, and neither has director Jo Bonney.

Reminiscent of Donald Margulies’s Time Stands Still and David Hare’s The Vertical Hour — both of which concerned the “war at home” faced by Iraq War journalists — but mostly resembling Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Scheer’s play opens in a cave somewhere (presumably the Middle East, but she doesn’t specify), where journalist Marina (Maggie Siff, stoic) and videographer Bear (Louis Ozawa) are filing a report as bombs explode just outside. The fighting intensifies around them, and Marina records a message to her 18-year-old daughter Cruz (Gabrielle Polanco), where she promises to spend more time at home if she makes it out alive. Marina is swiftly knocked out by the blast, and that takes us to…

“Heaven, right?” Marina asks in the garden of her new home in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Presumed dead though apparently recovered, Marina has decided to retire once and for all, and uses the occasion of receiving a “Distinguished Achievement” award to announce it. At the same time, she and Bear, her co-worker and romantic partner, decide to get married, which invites a host of eccentrics from across Marina’s life onto the scene: her Republican philanthropist BFF Sonia (Geneva Carr, always funny), wise-cracking mother “Gummy” (Julie Halston); ex-husband Fed (Matthew Saldivar); and professional rival Nikki (Tala Ashe), who is scheduled to present Marina with the prize. Nikki is also working on a podcast about Marina’s career, which will attempt to uncover the story behind Marina’s career-making news report during a hotel bombing.

Breaking the Story has a lot of interesting things on its mind, mostly about mothers who are single-minded in their ambition and their children who are left abandoned in their absence. Marina’s overseas reporting at the expense of being home to watch Cruz mature loosely mimics Gummy’s “occasional disappearances” with boyfriends. Similarly, Halston — giving a surprisingly deep performance here — has an undeniably moving speech about a mother’s agony as she constantly worries that her child will end up dead in a warzone somewhere. It’s a very real emotion in a situation that you don’t often see onstage.

However, Scheer (known for the play Our Dear Dead Drug Lord and the doctored book for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bad Cinderella) bogs the good stuff down in such banality that anything that’s even close to thought-provoking gets lost. Most of the dialogue within the wedding plot is trite, and the general plotting, overall, is too convoluted for its own good. At 80-minutes flat, Breaking the Story is too short to fully explore the many lofty ideas Scheer has, while there are also points where the conversations are so monotonous that it feels twice that length. The actors commit, but there isn’t much to commit to.

Bonney’s production also doesn’t know how to makes sense of the shifts in tone, giving the piece an uncharacteristic overdose of bells and whistles in an effort to bandage over the problems. Myung Hee Cho’s set is dominated by video screens, which allow projections of news footage and bombs dropping by Elaine J. McCarthy to steal focus. The sound design by Darron L West is particularly abrasive, and fairly terrifying. If you can’t handle very sudden extremely loud noises, Breaking the Story is definitely not the right play for you.

But the noise serves a purpose: throughout the play, Marina not only has attacks of PTSD, but experiences intense sensations of déjà vu. Scenes start and abruptly stop, only to begin again with slight differences (a nifty sleight of hand involving various wedding cakes provides some great theatrical magic). But why does Marina feel like she’s looking at her life like a bystander? And why do people talk about her in the third person. If you know the twist of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, you may be one step ahead of Breaking the Story. Then again, maybe the story is just broken.

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Breaking The Story

Closed: June 23, 2024