Two New Off-Broadway Stories: BREAKING THE STORY & WHAT BECAME OF US — Review


The company of Breaking The Story | Photo: Joan Marcus

Juan A. Ramirez
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June 4, 2024 9:00 PM

Two new plays, each under 90-minutes but wholly capable of capturing dual realities across continents, open tonight off-Broadway. One, Alexis Scheer’s Breaking the Story from Second Stage, fractures the life of a foreign war correspondent as she settles into an early retirement. The other, Shayan Lotfi’s What Became of Us at the Atlantic Theater’s smaller space, follows two siblings as they wrestle with growing up in a new country that will stretch and compress their relationship. Neither specify the “other” place, yet both will elicit conversations – with others, with one’s deepest memories – and are terrific dramas in their own right.


Sharply directed by Jo Bonney, Breaking the Story is the immediately ampler story, dropping us into the besieged city from which the American journalist Marina (Maggie Siff) is reporting with her cameraman, Bear (Louis Ozawa). Their exact location is unspecified, though the Middle East is heavily evoked by projected newsreel footage (by Elaine J. McCarthy), and our own sorry state of affairs. Sensing possible death, she tries to record an apologetic promise to her 18-year-old daughter before a blackout explosion triggers a headline: “American journalist missing, presumed dead.”

Then we’re in “Swellesley,” Mass., where Marina has bought an elegant house in whose garden she plans to marry Bear the day after receiving a lifetime achievement award. Her daughter, the inchoately leftist Cruz (Gabrielle Policano), will soon head off to college, and is backdoor-begging for maternal recognition. But though she’s set to retire, Marina’s mind remains on the battlefield—not so much because she’s an adrenaline junkie, as her Housewives-ish friend Sonia (Geneva Carr) believes, but because being in the center of the story seems the only way she can make sense of a broken world.

Julie Halston and Maggie Siff | Photo: Joan Marcus

Her mother, Gummy (Julie Halston) is thrilled to have her choose safety after years of heartache. But Marina’s ex-husband Fed (Matthew Saldívar), Cruz’s father, is creating new pains after having given away her journals to an upstart reporter, Nikki (Tala Ashe), while she was M.I.A. Add to all of this that Marina is haunted by flashbacks, and often seems to be dissociated (by Scheer) from the narrative as those around her speak about her while she’s in the room. Combined with moments which imply parallel timelines, these flourishes, while thought-provoking, don’t cohere successfully. 

Better off are the issues, vividly aroused by Scheer, which plague these people for whom news cycles represent career milestones: the populist accessibility of the bite-size news “content” Nikki traffics versus the nuanced, longform journalism Marina has come to represent, but Cruz denounces as elitist gatekeeping; the idea that feminine intuition exists, which Marina opposes despite, as her daughter reminds her, having worn a t-shirt proclaiming the future as female throughout 2016; whether framing a story is a journalistic right, or a veering off into emotional truths.

Their arguments are manifestly dialectic without making mouthpieces out of them, thanks to the richness of Scheer’s characterizations and the lived-in quality with which the cast – Siff and Carr are standouts – imbues them. At no point does it feel these people couldn’t step beyond the stage and continue making their points. The set (by Myung Hee Cho) is backed by a house frame, representing both the bombed-out shelters and the fill-in-the-blank idea of the idyllic home life to which Marina doubly seeks to escape. She’s scared the world will move forward without her; the problem, Scheer posits, is she doesn’t know which one she’d rather follow.


What Became of Us, meanwhile, is a work whose small production belies its thematic expansiveness. Lotfi has written a tender, beautiful play designed to be performed by two diasporic actors playing siblings, and the Atlantic has enlisted dual casts for its premiere: Rosalind Chao and BD Wong (who critics were invited to see), through June 15; Shohreh Aghdashloo and Tony Shalhoub, through June 29. They will briefly overlap, performing in repertory beginning June 10, and the chance to see the two casts take their turn on this material might be the theatrical must-see of the year.

Why? Because the play is a deceptively simple skeleton for actors of a certain age to fill out with decades worth of wisdom and knowing compassion. This does not mean Chao and Wong ham up a barebones work. The two deliver subtle, emotionally agile performances which resonate across ethnicity, age, and personality. But Lotfi’s writing lends itself well to instinct, especially as informed by background. However Shalhoub plays his part will likely be miles away from the smirky demeanor with which Wong suffuses the role, and the former’s Lebanese heritage will inform it in ways different than the latter’s Chinese-American experience. Though the actors play siblings on either side of a familial migration, details about their birthplace—a few mentions here and there of rice, or tea, or occupations in neighboring countries–keep specifics vague, only ensuring that it is not the United States. 

Rosalind Chao and BD Wong | Photo: Ahron R. Foster

The play itself is simple enough, and its charms lie in the details. Q (Chao) was born in the old country; the daughter of a comfortably middle-class couple who, over time, come to find their homeland unrecognizable. They sell off most of their possessions and move to a new land (“this country”), where Z (Wong) is soon born. Q was there to see her parents parlay their hustle as street vendors into the corner store they’ll operate through the rest of their lives, and commits herself to the family operations out of respect and a cultural sense of collectivism. Z is born into a country built on flaunting the fruits of individualism, and spends their early years resenting the hard-earned bounty their family has procured.

In plain-spoken language, the two narrate their parents, their own, and each other’s lives in chronological order, seldom speaking directly to each other. Can a series of “they said/you did/she would” statements (each change in perspective smartly deployed) build up to a compelling narrative relationship? Lotfi’s play answers with a resounding yes. Because, despite the importance of its ethnic casting, this is a universal story about siblings, and the way they slide tectonically along and past each other. The two’s diverging and converging relationships are mined with exquisite structure and refinement, creating a poignant look at the ways family is built upon and elaborated.

In assembling as fine a cast as this, director Jennifer Chang is able to let Chao and Wong excel through unfussy work. Chao exhibits a touching humanity matched by Wong’s winning disposition, and the two turn in some of the loveliest work on a New York stage right now. Tanya Orellana’s set is a movable floor-bound beam on which the actors sit; Reza Behjat conjures Rothko-like lighting well-suited to the reflective impressionism the work begets; and Rodrigo Muñoz’s costumes softly highlight the siblings’ cultural differences, with Chao in a slight Mandarin collar and Wong in more Western apparel.

What Became of Us is a gift to immigrants and families; a play that begs to be performed by every possible diasporic group, and which will grow richer as different casts widen and deepen its truths.


Breaking the Story is in performance through June 23, 2024 at the Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater on West 43rd Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.

What Became of Us is in performance through June 29, 2024 at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2 on West 16th Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.

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