nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 12, 2009
Temar Underwood's new play The Brokenhearteds is billed as a political thriller, and right away it's evident what makes this work of theatre unusual, special. Who writes political thrillers for the stage nowadays? (The last one I can think of is Tom Stoppard's Hapgood.) The Brokenhearteds is almost Ludlam-esque in its high-stakes intrigue. It will probably make a terrific film. Here, in a production at Wings Theatre under the precise and intelligent direction of Pete Boisvert, it makes for a cinematic and compelling, if sometimes overreaching, live drama.
The main character in The Brokenhearteds is Peter Graves, a twentysomething journalist from Ohio who is looking to make a splash in his chosen career in the Big Apple. Said splash not being imminently available, however, he takes a job with the daily AM New York, a free mini-tabloid that is mostly read by people on the subway; his job there is writing a political blog for their website about the forthcoming presidential election. (Underwood does not give a specific date for the play, but it feels like it could be 2004; all of the characters and situations are fictionalized.)
Peter gets a completely unlooked-for break from his old college friend Ezra Wesley. Ezra works at the White House for the incumbent Republican President, who is running for a second term. The bombshell he has for Peter could well be his boss's political undoing: apparently the Americans have captured the leader of a Muslim terrorist organization who is the nation's number one public enemy, and the White House is keeping the capture secret until the right moment, when it can help them nail the election. Ezra asks Peter to report the story in his blog, which he does. This unleashes a chain of events that are the equal of anything that ever happened to any of the reluctant protagonists of Alfred Hitchcock's thriller. Peter is embroiled big time, along with his girlfriend, Halle, and her ex-boyfriend, a comedian named Milan. Ezra is entangled as well, obviously, along with the Pakistani dissident who is Peter's source, Mu'Awiyah Fareed.
Underwood's plotting, especially once he gets the adventure going, from the second half of Act One forward, is intricate and convincing in the breathless way that the best thrillers can be. There are lots of surprises, including a truly horrifying terrorist plot that feels disturbingly possible. The love triangle involving Peter, Halle, and Milan plays out engagingly though not as rivetingly, in part because none of the characters is really fully developed enough for us to understand their emotional states (they're built more to be reactive to the suspenseful goings-on that propel the play). Underwood also wants to make some points about the perspectives and promises of his millennial generation, which he dubs "the brokenhearteds" here: it's a premise that mostly flounders until the very end of the play, but Underwood delivers on it satisfyingly at the finish.
The Brokenhearteds could use some tightening, especially in its first half-hour of exposition. Scenes in which Peter is visited by God, though all providing needed comic relief, don't feel well-integrated in the proceedings. Performances by Halle (a singer-songwriter) and Milan (standup comedy) halt the story despite their appeal. The thing keeps feeling like a movie, and moments like these, which on celluloid would be cross-cut with action sequences, don't quite work on stage.
But there are plenty of positives that make The Brokenhearteds absolutely worth your time. Underwood is a good writer, and there are passages in the play that are eloquent and incisive, where he gets exactly right some of the pressing social/moral conundrums of our time. And the story is exciting and watchable, like a book you can't put down.
Boisvert keeps it moving briskly, and manages the complicated final sequence—featuring three scenarios playing out simultaneously on stage—deftly. Underwood himself plays Ezra Wesley with real gravitas (he also has a terrific cameo as Peter's boss at the newspaper). Mike Mihm feels precisely right as Peter, the vaguely existential, sexy anti-hero whom we can't help but root for. Andrea Marie Smith is appealing as Halle, and Jon Hoche is chilling in a number of different roles, including the Pakistani Fareed and, perhaps more so, an American CIA operative. Paco Tolson gives another of his trademark excellent performances as Milan and a few other characters (he has a wonderful comic turn as James Blitz, a highly-strung TV news show host).
All in all, The Brokenhearteds makes for entertaining and insightful viewing, and welcomes a talented new playwright to the New York theatre scene.