Enveloped in near-total darkness, we hear breaking glass, screeching brakes – the sounds of a traffic accident. But who is the victim?
Lights up, and the scene is a hotel in New York. Or is it Los Angeles? A U.S. Marine Reservist (Rand Guerrero), who is either a Hispanic lawyer named Ramirez or an Italian American police detective named Romano, is having a spirited conversation with a ghostwriter (Charlotte Northeast) so obnoxious that no one would ever hire her.
They're discussing his role in recovering antiquities looted from Iraq's National Museum in Baghdad in 2003, the hero's journey in The Epic of Gilgamesh, and the tensions between facts and storytelling. "Truth seeks the power of fiction, and fiction the power of truth," the woman identified as the Writer declares elliptically. Guerrero's character develops a headache (or is it a hallucination?) that we soon come to share.
Director Seth Rozin's rat-a-tat pacing in this opening scene makes it hard for us to gain our sea legs. But the real stumbling block in the InterAct Theatre Company's world premiere of Fin Kennedy's Broken Stones is the play itself. The story is inspired, in part, by Matthew Bogdanos' Thieves of Baghdad. In Kennedy's hands, however, the fog of war is coupled with a pervasive thematic confusion.
The Marine in Broken Stones recounts and reenacts his investigation on stage. As he does, the Writer reshapes it, adding and deleting characters and incidents. Their resulting collaboration is published. Then, in a series of increasingly baffling twists, he is whisked to Hollywood, where a film adaptation is in the works, before turning up in a stage play.
There are far more than six characters here in search of an author (or maybe some emergency dramaturgical intervention). The cast list, which excludes minor characters, names 23, played by eight actors. Peter Bisgaier and Steven Wright are the standouts in Rozin's strong, high-energy ensemble.
The actual looting at the Iraqi museum generated conflicting news reports – about what was taken, who was responsible, and how it happened. That story has the rudiments of a thriller, and the impact of war on cultural heritage remains a timely theme.
But Kennedy overlays his plot with a couple of fragmentary love stories, as well as a meditation on the challenge of developing history from competing, self-interested accounts. (Michael Frayn treated a similar theme with far more grace and precision in Copenhagen.) By the end, the playwright, sliding into full Pirandello mode, has introduced the notion of theater as nothing more than a set of illusions ripe for authorial manipulation. Keeping current, he also gets in digs at "alternative facts" and "fake news."
Natalia de la Torre's costumes help us swivel between military and civilian life, and Nick Embree's flexible set allows for fluid scene changes. But one could imagine a more fantastical design to signal the play's meta-theatricality.
Broken Stones, while it begins with a bang and ends with a whimper, is never boring. The problem is that it suffers from too many ideas.
Broken Stones. Through Nov. 19, InterAct Theatre Company, Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks St. Tickets: $25-$40. Information: interacttheatre.org or 215-568-8079.