If How to Break were an actual hip-hop track, it would be defined by the solid chorus and rhythmic structure that bridges the dramatic beat(boxing) surrounding the cancer diagnosis and treatments of Ana (Amber Williams), a fiercely independent 18-year-old popper, and her in-hospital romance with Joel (Pedro Morillo), a brash and flirtatious DJ who refuses to be constrained by his sickle-cell. But it would also be weighed down by a contributing artist's silly and ultimately sloppy guest verse in which their street-wise and serious doctor, Aden (Dan Domingues), falls for the hospital's breezy and hippy-like artist-in-residence, Maddy (Roberta Burke). Although Aaron Jafferis is credited with the book and lyrics, he's had to tie those in with Adam Matta and Yako 440's live score (Yako 440 plays a nurse, layering in the sound from heartbeats to complex rhythms), Kwikstep and Rokafella's introductory choreography (light animation, popping, breaking), and Rebecca Hart's music (I'm assuming for the folksier, acoustic numbers that Maddy strums and sings). There are moments where this all shines under Christopher V. Edwards's direction, particularly in the piece's climax (thanks in large part to the unifying video design by Dave Tennent and Kate Freer), but the majority of How to Break is distractingly disjointed and, worse, artificial, a sad truth that's at serious odds with the play's underlying message to "be real."
That said, props to How to Break for remixing Emily Dickinson's "Hope is a thing with feathers" and for tapping into various forms of modern teen expression to deal, often honestly, with the way we cope with disease. It's always refreshing to watch pessimism and optimism throw down; I only wish it felt a little more free-styled, It'd be nice, too, if Jafferis didn't feel it necessary to have Aden and Madden repeat the arguments already made by Ana and Joel -- particularly in a ridiculous yoga-studio setting -- and if he were able to be a little less literal with the dancing. Early on, as Ana gets her diagnosis, we see her step outside her body to release her mental tension with some dance; most other places, Joel is merely demonstrating his positive thinking by spinning a few moves through the pain.
How to Break wants to be ill, not sickly -- and I'm afraid it's going to need a stronger prescription to do so.
Though this should go without saying, as a freelance arts-and-entertainment critic, the tickets (or books, or screeners) that I review are provided, free of charge, by publicists. As should be obvious to anyone regularly reading this site, that does not make me biased, and those interested in an exploration of potential biases I may actually have can look up the tag "metaDRAMA." For FTC reasons, as of December, 2009, I will use the tag "Independent" when reviewing my own purchases.