In ‘Breaking the Story,’ Maggie Siff’s War Reporter Lives With Scars

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Gabrielle Policano and Maggie Siff in Breaking the Story. Joan Marcus

Despite the fact they read from a script and dress the part, most TV reporters would deny an equivalence with actors. Some gig across the non/fiction divide, as when Brian Williams spoofed himself on 30 Rock. Generally, though, it’s trustworthy-looking stars—Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom), Jennifer Aniston (The Morning Show), or Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight)—who get their fingers metaphorically smeared in ink. Maggie Siff fits the Murrow mold; the Billions actor’s flinty glamour and quiet strength make her a telegenic messenger from war zones in Alexis Scheer’s Breaking the Story. When Siff’s chiseled features appear jumbo size on projection screens around Myung Hee Cho’s set (video design by Elaine J. McCarthy), we sit up and pay attention to the news.

If only Scheer’s schizoid study of trauma and the ethics of journalism knew which story it wanted to break, the play might carry more heft or emotional resonance. It opens in an unspecified foreign city barraged by artillery. Protected only by bulletproof vests and helmets, Marina (Siff) and her cameraman/lover Bear (Louis Ozawa) struggle to capture footage and not get blown to pieces. Between whooshes of missiles and blood-curdling booms, Marina blurts, “This is a nightmare.” Seems an oddly vulnerable (and superfluous) remark from someone with 20 years in the field, but Scheer is telegraphing her authorial intent. 

Louis Ozawa and Maggie Siff in Breaking the Story. Joan Marcus

The scene shifts suddenly to an idyllic backyard lawn in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where we learn that Marina is ready to retire, marry Bear, and accept a lifetime achievement media award. “Heavenly,” she remarks, barefoot on the grass, in an obvious rejoinder the “nightmare” five minutes ago. The tone of the play has jerked from gritty realism to Nicky Silver–type social comedy. Ever-delightful Geneva Carr bubbles up as Marina’s socialite maid of honor, bossing assistants and dropping names. Marina’s crusty, wisecracking mother appears in the form of camp goddess Julie Halston. And the magnetic Tala Ashe sashays on as Marina’s younger colleague and rival in the news biz. For all the witty banter and crosstalk, though, it’s not entirely clear if this reality is . . . real. Harrowing flashbacks buffet Marina, triggered by random noise (a dropped vase), or she listens helplessly as friends and family carry on discussions as if she weren’t there. Now and then, Marina will turn to an invisible stage manager and ask to skip or redo a scene. Is she trapped in a nightmare? Is this one of those elaborate dying fantasies that occur in fiction (e.g., “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”). Safe bet on the latter.

Given how many large red flags Scheer flaps about, it’s not much of a shock. Marina’s college-age daughter, Cruz (Gabrielle Policano), and her mother both confess they think of her as more dead than alive, given how many life-threatening situations she embraced. The situations and dialogue grow increasingly disjointed and surreal, until you find yourself simply waiting for the inevitable fatal reveal at the end of 85 increasingly unengaging minutes. By the time they get to sampling wedding cakes and Marina’s frets about a comically large and scary knife, I will understand if you’ve checked out.

Maggie Siff, Geneva Carr, Gabrielle Policano, Julie Halston and Tala Ashe (from left) in Breaking the Story. Joan Marcus

What is Breaking the Story finally about? Scheer does not delve deeply into any of the conflict zones Marina covered, so we don’t learn about Ukraine or Syria or her PTSD in any meaningful way. The satirical potshots at television journalism and partisan podcasts are equally superficial. As far as characterization goes—a sympathetic, multi-layered portrait of a woman in the news—Marina is a vacillating, passive figment of her own imagination. We barely get to know her, even with her eleventh-hour confession about the origin of the scar on her right cheek. In the end, Scheer shortchanges several meaty topics for a writing exercise that keeps the audience off-balance sorting through scattered puzzle pieces.

Jo Bonney’s flat, face-value staging only underscores the glibness of the script (the overarching it-was-only-a-death-dream conceit apparently gives Scheer the freedom to indulge in clunkers and cliches). The Second Stage Theatre production design is crisp and mostly effective, with Cho’s prim deconstruction of a grassy lawn and appalling detonations simulated by Jeff Croiter’s harsh lighting and Darron L. West concussing sound effects. The overqualified cast does what it can with a flimsy dramaturgical conceit. You feel for them. When a show squanders Halston, Carr, Ashe, and the magnetic Siff in such pseudo-topical trifle, it’s a criminal misuse of great women—even if it doesn’t rise to a war crime.

Breaking the Story | 1hr 25mins. No intermission. | Second Stage Theatre’s Tony Kiser Theater | 305 West 43rd Street | 212-392-1818 | Buy Tickets Here   


Review: In ‘Breaking the Story,’ Maggie Siff’s TV War Reporter Lives With Scars

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