“Breaking the Story” makes important critique of ‘activist’ journalism

By Lucy Komisar

This play about a woman war correspondent (of course, she rejects the first adjective) was written by Alexis Scheer, a young playwright whose Broadway debut was adapting the book for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s clever feminist “Bad Cinderella.” Director Jo Bonney is a prominent creative presence in the theater world, a winner of major theater awards and nominations, including Tony and Drama Desk. So, I expected a lot.

In the event, “Breaking the Story” is a mixed bag, a patchwork of stories, some of them interesting, others not so much, but it makes an important political point about journalism.

The play opens with startling loud and flashing bombs. Perhaps it is significant that the boring part involves home in the U.S. and the interesting part is about the life of Marina (the excellent Maggie Siff) as a TV war correspondent.

Maggie Siff as Marina, Geneva Carr as Sonia, Gabrielle Policano as Cruz, Julie Halston as Gummy and Tala Ashe as Nikki, photo Joan Marcus.

The set is the green yard of the gorgeous house she has bought in Wellsley. She is retiring from 20 years on the front line and is getting an award for lifetime achievement in conflict journalism. That brings her friend Sonia (the perfect Hamptons type Geneva Carr), whose Republican politics are repeated (for guns and private prisons) to match her wealthy tastes, her mother Gummy (the terrifically funny Brooklyn-accented Julie Halston), her daughter Cruz (Gabrielle Policano, with a fine voice in her rock numbers). Tagging along is Nikki (Tala Ashe), Marina’s journalist protégée.

There is also the oddly named Bear (Louis Ozawa), her cameraman, to whom she in an unemotional and businesslike way proposes wedlock. Her marriage to a TV producer Fed (Matthew Saldívar), who cheated on her, ended in divorce, though he wants her back. The problem is there’s no personal feeling shown in either of the relationships.

Maggie Siff as Marina and Louis Ozawa as Bear, photo Joan Marcus.

I found my attention wandering for at least 5 minutes (seemed more) at Marina, Bear, and guests tasting and commenting on wedding cakes. Perhaps it meant to emphasize the mundane against the danger and drama of reporting from Syria and other urban battlefields. Marina is tough but is also distraught, has been traumatized by the war and is beset by nightmares and memory flashes: when she cuts a cake, she imagines she is bleeding.

We learn about her courage under fire. She was hit in Syria but made a tourniquet with her Hermes scarf. (Really, who wears a Hermes scarf over a bullet-proof vest?)

But she also recalls the importance of putting before the American public these people’s stories, of refugees made homeless by the bombing, of real people killed. (It has to make audiences think of Israel’s bombing of Gaza.)

Maggie Siff as Marina, photo Joan Marcus.

Yet it’s hard for her to fit into the “normal” life.  She wears baggy pants and a tank top which say gritty rather than fashionable. She says she is a warzone “10“ and a real world “3.” A smashed vase erupts in her mind as a bomb. (The backdrop visuals are stunning. Projections by Elaine J. McCarthy.)

Marina’s personality is not dark, perhaps as a defense. She is good at quips. She sold her place in London. “They have a king now. The vibes are off.” The cakes are named Dark Cheney with grenade (Grenache) and Cherry Hezbollah.

The most interesting part is the conversation between Marina and Nikki, who is doing a podcast of her life. Nikki accuses her of putting bad people on the map by reporting on them. Marina counters that people have to know what these monsters think.

Tala Ashe as Nikki, photo Joan Marcus.

The play is worth it for Marina’s message:

“It’s our job to tell the whole story, Nikki! Not just the part of the story we agree with! I mean this is why news rooms are a mess right now, because you think every story has to fortify your echo chamber. But that’s not journalism, that’s activism. God, you make me feel like a dinosaur. And look, if that’s the kind of work you want to be doing, then do that, because we need activists. But don’t walk around with the word ‘press’ emblazoned on your chest pretending you’re after the whole truth.”

Alas, U.S. mainstream newsrooms are run by the Nikkis, not the Marinas. Which is why U.S. journalism is a mess, infused with propaganda. It’s why I ignore it and get my news from independent sources on the internet. It’s important that this playwright, Alexis Scheer, makes the critique shared by many who reject both the corporate and much of the soi-disant “liberal” press.

Breaking the Story.” Written by Alexis Scheer, directed by Jo Bonney. Second Stage, 305 West 43rd St., NYC. (212) 541-4516.  Runtime 85min. Opened June 4, 2024, closes June 23, 2024.

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