A mystery inside a conundrum wrapped in a meta-theatrical burrito: that's Fin Kennedy's Broken Stones, an intriguing mess of a play premiered by InterAct Theatre Company.
The controversy surrounding the looting of the Baghdad Museum in the Iraq War's early days inspired Kennedy. But his dark comedy, directed by Seth Rozin, spirals dizzyingly due to — or despite — the control of a central character, the Writer (Charlotte Northeast).
When Broken Stones begins, the Writer meets Marine Corps reservist Alejandro Ramirez (Rand Guerrero), who seeks a ghostwriter to pen his memoir. "So, what's the story?" she demands. "There's always a story." She cites The Epic of Gilgamesh as a model not only for her bestsellers but for Hollywood. "Truth seeks the power of fiction," she asserts, "and fiction seeks the power of truth."
Truth or consequences
The Writer proposes marrying the two. She changes Alejandro Ramirez to Al Romano — Italian Americans have movies made about them all the time, she notes — and proposes killing off his wife in the 9/11 attacks, because "your story starts with a tragedy." She fictionalizes his encounters with soldiers, Marine brass, and Iraqi museum workers, all played with impressive skill by Daniel Barland, Peter Bisgaier, Joe Guzman, Najla Said, Nazli Sarpkaya, and Steven Wright, moving deftly between characters and styles as the Writer's amped-up vision overwhelms Ramirez's prosaic facts. Nick Embree's scenic design is just as flexible, as are Natalia de la Torre's many costumes. Peter Whinnery's lighting enlists the space's work and house lights.
By intermission, "Al Romano," a stunned, befuddled Ramirez (or is it Guerrero who seems lost?), is the famous author of the bestselling memoir Rescuing History. A cover blurb foreshadows the inevitable: "A story with all the makings of a Hollywood action flick!"
Jump that shark
Kennedy's story zigs from the mire of Iraqi politics and military bureaucracy to a familiarly shallow, satirical Hollywood. Ramirez argues for "the truth," but the pretentious filmmakers tell him, "You sold the rights — be happy." His characters become ridiculous stereotypes in silly film scenes, but Broken Stones zags when Ramirez suspects the producer of buying black-market Iraqi antiquities.
Will Ramirez wrest control and steer the movie within the play, and perhaps Broken Stones itself, back to his story? No. Kennedy's plot takes another sudden turn that shoots it soaring over the shark to another reality altogether. Fascinating topics are abandoned: the ethics of presenting history with fiction's devices, the irony of American collectors buying Iraqi treasures and perhaps funding ISIS, and more. Instead, we get amusing yet familiar navel-gazing focusing on, of course, the Writer.
When an Iraqi character says about her country's ruin, "There's no story to hold us together, only hatred," she could be describing Broken Stones. The Writer would replace "hatred" with "cleverness" and "no story" with "too many stories." Ironically, the play betrays itself. The actual writer — Kennedy — changes his world's rules so many times that no hero emerges in Broken Stones for us to care about.