03 January 2013

'What Rhymes With America'

Sometimes I just don’t know what people are thinking!  Okay, I guess that’s not so rare, especially these days.  But I’m not talking about politics or personal behavior on the street or on a subway.  I’m talking now about theater and why some plays are selected for production and how some viewers assess them.  Sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense to me at all.

I’ve been on family matters in the Washington area since the end of November and came back to New York City to see the world première of Melissa James Gibson’s What Rhymes With America at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater in Chelsea.  I came back for only three days principally to see this show, which had gotten an excellent review in the New York Times two weeks earlier.  (I didn’t read any other reviews then.  I generally don’t until after I see the show.)  Well, I guess there really is no accounting for taste.  Or discernment.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My usual theater partner, Diana, and I caught the evening performance at ATC’s West 20th Street main stage on Thursday, 27 December 2012.  The play, Gibson’s ATC début, had started previews on 19 November and opened on 12 December; the production closed on 30 December.  The director, Daniel Aukin, has staged many of Gibson’s premières, making him one of her most loyal artistic boosters.  (Aukin was also the director of Sam Shepard’s Heartless at the Signature Theatre last August; see my report posted on ROT on 10 September 2012.)  Gibson’s previous works include This (produced by Playwrights Horizons in December 2009 and January 2010), Current Nobody (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., 2007), Suitcase Or, Those That Resemble Flies From A Distance (SoHo Rep, 2004), and [sic] (SoHo Rep, 2001; 2002 Obie Award).  Born in British Columbia, Canada, Gibson, who turns 48 this month, was schooled at Columbia University and the Yale School of Drama (MFA in playwriting).  A naturalized U.S. citizen, she lives and works in New York City.

What Rhymes With America’s story is about a newly divorced father, Hank, and his estranged 16-year-old daughter, Marlene.  The play starts as the two stand on either side of a closed door because Marlene’s mother had admonished her not even to open the door to Hank.  Life is unraveling for him—he’s a university economist who’s lost his grants—and is entirely uncertain for her.  What follows is a largely disjointed series of encounters between Hank and his daughter, acquaintances (he works as a supernumerary in an opera company and we see scenes between him and his female counterpart, would-be actress—sorry, actor—Sheryl), and strangers (Marlene is a hospital volunteer for her college résumé and Hank meets Lydia, the bereaved daughter of a recently deceased patient).  It is Gibson’s point that none of these associations, including the one with his daughter, comes to anything, leaving Hank lost and frustrated.  (Me, too, if truth be told.  Others seem not to agree with that response, finding significance in the emptiness.) 

The narrative is incohesive and disconnected.  For the most part, one scene doesn’t “cause” another; the structure, if you can say there is one, is a real string of beads.  Hank’s presence in nearly all the scenes (there’s one brief moment when Marlene is with the dying patient and Lydia, though Hank turns up shortly) is the lone unifying element—along, I suppose, with the unit set which represents minimally all the locations of the play.  The time-line is logical, unlike, say, the episodes of Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries (at Second Stage two seasons ago; see my ROT report on 23 February 2011) which jumped around in time, so the structure isn’t exactly non-linear.  But it is episodic and the impression with which I was left is that Gibson “wrote scenes,” as Diana put it, not a play.  It came across to me as if the playwright imagined some plot points and characters and wrote a play to accommodate them: What if there was this divorced guy whose daughter won’t talk to him?  What if he worked as an opera extra?  What if he met the daughter of a man who just died?  It’s like a pot luck dinner for the stage.

There is one other connecting aspect, though.  All the characters are pathetic.  (Hank doesn’t agree, by the way.  But he’s self-deluded.  Marilyn Stasio in Variety does agree, though.)  I kept wanting to shout out Get a life!   The best and strongest of them is Sheryl, who’s consequently also the most interesting, but she’s in only about three of the ten or so scenes of the play’s interminable 85 intermissionless minutes.  She’s ultimately dreary, too, though at least she knows what she wants.  (Sheryl has what I thought was the best moment in the whole play: she performs her audition monologue for Hank, Lady Macbeth’s letter scene.  Unfortunately for What Rhymes, Gibson didn’t write that scene or create that character and it just showed how wan all the rest of the stuff was.  That’s the problem with slipping a long quotation from a great writer into your work: it just invites comparison—and you might not come off too well.)  I quickly determined that I didn’t want to spend an hour with these folks, much less almost an hour-and-a-half.  In fact, one New York Times reader even remarked on the review’s web page, “If I had been on the end [of the row,] I would have left half way through.”  (I share the sentiments of the reader, who called himself “GeorgeSpelvin,” suggesting some theatrical connection—that’s the pseudonym an actor uses in a program when he doesn’t want to be identified [see “‘How I Got My Equity Card: George Spelvin’” by Don Stitt, 16 November 2010 on ROT]—though I’d almost never leave a show partway through; I feel it’s an insult to the actors.)

My whole sense of bitter disappointment was exacerbated because Charles Isherwood wrote a rave review in the Times the day after the play opened.  It wasn’t just a good notice, but a really enthusiastic one.  I generally find that I agree with Isherwood’s assessments; if I have a quibble now and then, it’s because I think he’s been kinder to the production over some fault we both noted, but overall, we usually seem to share similar opinions.  (I have frequent problems with Ben Brantley’s estimations, as I’ve said once or twice before, but that’s not relevant here.)  I don’t generally read other reviews before seeing a show, but since I subscribe to the Times, I do see that notice when it comes out and while I try not to establish expectations based on someone else’s opinion—I know that reviews are little more than the writer’s private responses sometimes made to sound like a universal pronouncement (see my ROT article “On Reviewing,” 22 March 2009)—when a reviewer whose opinion I usually respect is as enthusiastic as Isherwood was this time, I get a little anticipatory.  Having glanced at some of the other reviews now, I can say that many were also positive, but the Times seems to have been at the extreme, so I’m going to try to use Isherwood’s review as a template and, as it were, rebut his estimation (though, of course, he’s perfectly entitled to his response to this or any other work of art).

The Timesman called What Rhymes a “touching, sorrowful comedy,” but neither Diana nor I found it the least bit “touching” or even moving.  “Sorrowful,” perhaps, is apt, but not in the sense that Isherwood intended: rather than ‘producing sorrow,’ the performance made me sorry I went.  (Okay, maybe that’s a cheap shot, but I was not at all happy to be at ATC that night, especially since I came all the way up from Maryland essentially just for that performance.)  Drawing an analogy with the personalities of the characters with their costumes (a rather clever writing device, I must observe, by the way), Isherwood went on to say that “what the characters wear is much less important than what they say and how they say it.”  I won’t quibble over the costumes, nicely selected by Emily Rebholz to fit the drab, hyper-ordinary look of the production, but I can’t go along with the suggestion that Gibson’s dialogue has either “an entrancing oddity,” as Isherwood described it, or a revelatory point about the circumstances or the people of her play.  (This was one aspect where the forced comparison with Shakespeare did Gibson no service.)  The characters’ lines mostly seemed artificial and forced to me, as if the playwright were trying consciously to make them portentous and arresting but didn’t manage to do so organically.  She uses words like “triumphant,” “dread,” and “enjambment,” relatively uncommon in ordinary discourse I’d say, to poeticize her dialogue, but they came off to me as leaden and overblown.  Hank and Sheryl provide a brief commentary on the word “woe,” another word that belongs more in the world of opera and Shakespearean drama than backstage banter (even at the Met).  (At the same time, Hank and Lydia do a little colloquy on words they don’t much like—she’s a failed short-story writer—especially “vis-à-vis.”)  The Times reviewer didn’t so much disagree with my diagnosis as differ with the significance I ascribe to it.  Isherwood found Gibson’s use of language that’s “sometimes . . . yanked out with no rhythm or rhyme,” failing “in bringing people together, or even keeping them from growing apart,” a manifestation of “her characters’ anxiety about their seeming inadequacy.”  To Diana and me, it all seemed a jumble of disconnected verbal meanderings adding up to nothing but a few lonely chuckles. 

The language’s artificiality and brittleness is a lot like the gimmick Gibson uses in the opening scene of What Rhymes: Hank and Marlene on opposite sides of the front door of the house Marlene shares with her mother.  The door was imaginary, requiring the actors to mime it occasionally, as when Hank reached around it when Marlene opened it a crack so he could pass her a few dollars of the $240 he owes her in overdue allowance.  Though Laura Jellinek’s whole set was minimal, there were no other instances of miming a prop or a set piece (except in a reprise of the same set-up with the invisible front door).  Isherwood asserted that the unbreachable separation between father and daughter was augmented by the invisibility of the physical barrier, which I suspect is what the playwright and director intended, though, like the language, this device seemed artificial and arbitrary, out of line with the rest of the production’s basically naturalistic style.  In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz believed that Gibson’s telling us, “Even with nothing solid between people, they can’t get through to each other,” affirming, “There’s something at once mundane and major in that.”  (I don’t know if this bit is in Gibson’s script or if it was a choice of director Aukin.)

As for Jellinek’s minimal set design, Isherwood described it as “simple,” which he meant appreciatively.  I’d have chosen ‘barren’ as my descriptive.  (Linda Winer of Long Island’s Newsday called the set “a vast sterile-looking space,” but she was also being complimentary.  It’s a little ironic that this ATC production should have this design issue: I made a similar complaint about the set of the last ATC show I saw, Simon Stephens’s Harper Regan; see my ROT report on 20 October 2012.)  A jumble of jutting, eggshell-colored pieces of wall with isolated bits of décor—an exhaust fan here, a framed painting there, a lone pay phone upstage—it looked more to me as if either Jellinek had run out of ideas or the crew hadn’t had time to complete the construction and dressing before the play opened.  (Yes, I know that’s not really likely: I’m talking impressions here, not actuality.)  The set ringed three sides of the stage with each segment representing a different location: a hospital room; a hospital corridor; Hank’s dismal apartment; the fireplace of, apparently, Marlene’s mother’s living room.  (The imaginary front door of the house was down center.)  This meant that, except for the two scenes at the door, almost all the other ones were staged around the periphery of an empty stage.  If Aukin or Gibson made this decision to symbolize the emptiness of the characters’ lives, it was an anti-theatrical way of doing that—like a workshop set up conceived for practicality rather than aesthetics or audience impact. 

ATC’s What Rhymes With America was Daniel Aukin’s sixth directorial collaboration with Gibson (out of about 11 premières), including her début play, [sic], and her last, This, so it’s obvious they have a significant artistic relationship.  Isherwood affirmed that the London-born director “is attuned to the jittery, cascading rhythms of her dialogue,” and I can’t deny that even though I didn’t discern any especially astute insight in the staging.  Whatever rhythms Gibson’s words developed, since they were lost on me anyway, may well have been well-interpreted by Aukin.  I didn’t find much benefit to the director’s work with Shepard’s Heartless at the Signature Theatre last August, but I didn’t see any of the self-indulgence in What Rhymes that I detected in the earlier show.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that his staging of What Rhymes was any more effective artistically; I still found his work ineffective—though probably he’d never have been able to make something interesting to me out of Gibson’s script.  In an interview in December, Gibson said of their collaboration that Aukin’s “very gifted at finding carnal and emotional complexity without ever exerting a heavy hand.”  As I intimated in my report on Heartless, maybe he should exert a heavier hand—but the fact that they’re artistic kindred suggests to me that this isn’t a team I should follow avidly. 

Isherwood did acknowledge that the play “sometimes grows a little too enamored of its characters’ mournful quirkiness” and is “more self-conscious and less integrated than” Gibson’s last work, but he still came down in the end on a highly laudatory note, declaring the “the play is nevertheless full of compassionate wonder.”  I won’t argue the compassion the playwright may have conceived, though I felt none for the losers Gibson created (you can tell they’re losers, as Stasio also confirms: Hank and Sheryl smoke backstage at the opera; he even burns her costume), but the wonder they provoked in me was only how they managed to get onto a stage.  (Along with reader GeorgeSpelvin in the Times, responder Mary Ellen Goodman pondered, “[W]hy it was selected for production is beyond me.”)

The one aspect of the performance with which I have less dispute is Isherwood’s estimation of the acting.  In general, the cast did a good enough job with what Gibson provided them.  “Less” isn’t none, however, and I do argue with the effectiveness of the acting with respect to the production.  The reviewer wrote that the company's “engaging performances help add some heft” to the disjointed script, but I found that under Aukin’s guidance, the actors weren’t able to revivify a nearly-dead body, hitting mostly the same notes over and over and essentially underlining predictable outcomes at every turn.  As Hank, for instance, Chris Bauer (whose work I know only from TV: True Blood, Numb3rs, Third Watch, The Wire) was consistently morose and downtrodden.  The character’s written that way, I know, but there was no variation in Bauer’s behavior or his speech.  When he meets Lydia in the hospital hallway, we know they’re going to connect and that, when the two sad sacks have their first (and only) date, it will be disastrous.  Seana Kofoed’s Lydia was a one-note character, “synthetically odd” in the apt words of Erik Haagensen of Back Stage; she showed a little spunk in her parting scene when she tells Hank off, ordering him to forget he ever saw her breasts (“They’re my breasts,” she commands), but otherwise, she was as downcast and pitiful as Hank.  Nonetheless, I have to acknowledge that the scene in which the two nobodies meet and compare personal tragedies was well acted; it would make a terrific scene-study piece for two middle-aged acting students and Kofoed and Bauer executed it perfectly.  I think Bauer’s a good character actor and I’d like to see him in other roles like the Howard he did in the 2005 revival of Streetcar on Broadway.  As Marlene, in an Off-Broadway début Isherwood called “strikingly good,” Aimee Carrero was just as single-note and predictable as her castmates, suggesting that the fault lies mostly with Gibson and Aukin rather than with the actors.  Carrero’s teenaged daughter wasn’t as annoying as Madeleine Martin’s counterpart in Harper Regan, but her singular determination not to let her father into her life—Isherwood found that Carrero managed to signal her love for Hank but I saw no such variation in her sullenness—was as enervating as Hank’s and Lydia’s piteousness.  Only Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s Sheryl, the would-be actor, showed some verve, as I noted.  Next to the Shakespeare monologue, she had the best Gibson-written bit in the play, too: a speech about what a great kisser she is which not only demonstrated how much more personality Sheryl has than anyone else on the stage, but gave Randolph, Tony-nominated for the musical Ghost, the best shot at showing her acting chops.  (She also did a nice turn in the Lady Macbeth speech, and I’d kind of like to see her do the role sometime.  I bet she’d knock it out of the park.)  The part, however, is something of a set piece, a relief from the downbeat (and beaten-down) other characters, even though Sheryl, too, succumbs to her own misfortunes.  (She can’t audition—she freezes up—so she never gets call backs and is stuck doing extra work in the opera, which she takes rather over-seriously.)  In the final analysis, the acting was generally pretty good but it didn’t aid the production much because of the writing and Aukin’s lackluster direction. 

One additional note at this juncture: the Times reviewer remarked that Carrero “does fine by the sad songs Marlene composes and performs,” referring to tuneless compositions by Ryan Rumery which Isherwood described as “mordant.”  Once again, I demur.  I admit I’m prejudiced because I can’t stand tuneless music (there used to be a TV commercial for some sugar substitute that drove me up the wall because of the atonal jingle it used as ad copy), but I didn’t find the ditties in the least “connective” but rather disjunctive, interruptive.  The scenes of What Rhymes With America—the title itself refers to Marlene’s songwriting—are episodic enough without also being separated by Marlene’s guitar riffs.  (By the way, the answer to the title’s question is “nothing”: nothing rhymes with America.  The Back Stage reviewer, however, suggested “esoterica.”  That’s supposed to be portentous.  It’s just another contrivance to me, though.)

In addition to Isherwood’s Times notice, other press response to What Rhymes was also positive.  (Interestingly, the reader response to the Times review was split almost evenly.  Of the 15 comments, eight were entirely negative—that is, disagreeing with Isherwood’s assessment—and seven were positive—or at least forgiving, as two expressed serious reservations and several others dismissed what the writers considered minor ones.)  Newsday’s Winer called What Rhymes an “enchanting, tough-minded” play “that is both morose and unexpectedly engaging.”  Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post wrote that the “quirky play meanders gently from cryptic scene to seemingly extraneous aside.”  “[A]n affecting picture eventually emerges,” reported Vincentelli, and the short play “is the rare show that leaves you wanting more.”  The Post writer complimented the cast and concluded that despite the characters’ inability to connect to each other, the actors “still touch us.”  In the News, Dziemianowicz declared that Gibson’s “offbeat and beautiful new comedy-dramedy purrs along, even as it wanders, to a gentle rise.”  The dialogue, Dziemianowicz asserted, is “smart and witty” and “sounds perfectly natural and wonderfully poetic at the same time.”  The News review-writer concluded, “Even in a play about tangled lives, every moment, every line, every smoke ring comes with a reason and a rhyme.” 

In an odd perspective on Gibson’s drama, James Hannaham asserted in the Village Voice that “director Daniel Aukin crashes Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s fiery virtuosity headlong into a backdrop of quirky Caucasians” and continued that “in Randolph's hands, Gibson's story . . . gets blown up into a sharp commentary on whiteness and repression.”  Hannaham didn’t go back to this racial take on the play, which he explained “ostensibly concerns Hank,” but he did pretty much give the review—and the production—to Sheryl and Randolph.  (Along the way, he never did assess the play.)

In New York magazine, Scott Brown cautioned that though What Rhymes has “a spectacularly awful title and a log line—lonely, half-likable folks adrift in a sere, seriocomic moral universe with only their illusions and obsessions as life rafts—that's all too easy to dismiss as terminal Off Broadway,” it’s “really quite good” due in large part, Brown asserted, to director Aukin’s control.  Gibson, he declared, “writes fluidly and beautifully,” composing scenes that are “each a sketchlike contrivance, but none of them sketchy.”  The New Yorker, calling the play a “delightfully bizarre trifle,” reported, “What the playwright is up to plotwise is not entirely certain.”  Lauding Gibson’s past work, culminating in 2009’s This, David Cote in Time Out New York felt that What Rhymes With America is “a step back.  It’s a melancholy story, told in an affecting, minor key, but overly quirky details detract from your sympathy for its failed protagonists.”  Concluded Cote:

For all [the play’s] schematic signposting (and wan musical interludes), Gibson writes concise, witty dialogue, and Daniel Aukin’s spare, delicate staging captures the emotional isolation of these characters.  In the end, What Rhymes is self-selecting: It will draw in those who treasure the plays of Will Eno, Annie Baker or Sarah Ruhl, or their indie-film equivalents . . . .  Older Atlantic Theater Company subscribers [Who, me?] may leave confused or even irritated, but they will now be acquainted with one of our most ingenious and beguiling playwrights.

Erik Haagensen of Back Stage warned, however, that “[t]he quirk quotient is dangerously high” in What Rhymes, “a rather sketchy collection of scenes in search of a play.”  What Rhymes, Haagensen said in the theater weekly, is “a thin, archly self-conscious, awfully dreary look at a largely random quartet of unhappy people that plods dully by” in a “no doubt deliberately drab physical production.”  In conclusion, the Back Stage writer, referring specifically to the enigmatic title , added, “I haven’t a clue as to what Gibson means by it,” echoing my own response.  And Variety’s Stasio was pretty acerbic when she declared:

Credit set designer Laura Jellinek for a nice piece of deceptive visual design.  Her abstract white set makes “What Rhymes With America” look like the avant-garde piece that scribe Melissa James Gibson would like to think she's written, instead of the trite celebration of mid-life arrested development that it manifestly is.

Director Aukin, Stasio wrote, “put a high gloss on the thin material he's been given to work with.”  Of Hank, What Rhymes’s central character, she averred, he “doesn't even deserve center stage.”  I wholeheartedly concur. 

On the ’Net, Matthew Murray of Talkin’ Broadway described Gibson’s play as a “dangerously unpredictable and sometimes too self-satisfied comedy” which “maintains its consistent level of engagement.”  The playwright-director team “operate in a sharp, poetic, staccato style that captures the unfinished sentences and half-formed thoughts,” Murray said, but added, “The specific brand of quirkiness that has traditionally characterized Gibson and Aukin's work . . . does not always find a natural home here.”  The dramatist’s ideas “are scattered whenever they're not sobering,” observed Murray.  On TheaterMania, Brian Scott Lipton called What Rhymes an “often hilarious and consistently thoughtful new play.”  The director “guides the cast through Gibson's sometimes dense and sometimes deceptively simple speeches, so they never sound unnatural,” Lipton felt, resulting in a “very fine play [that] has more than enough poetry of its own.”  Elyse Sommer characterized What Rhymes on CurtainUp as a “play in which so little and yet so much happens” and lauds Daniel Aukin for “smartly and inventively” directing Gibson’s work.

The Atlantic states that What Rhymes With America explores “estrangement and the partially examined life.”  Gibson’s said, “I was really trying to explore this particular landscape and this particular moment,” which essentially means she agrees with the theater’s statement, since that’s what the play portrays in its narrative and characters.  My problem comes after that declaration: what are we supposed to take away?  What’s Gibson’s point about “estrangement” and “the partially examined life”?  That they’re debilitating and destructive?  Don’t we know that?  So what more does Gibson want us to see?  I sure don’t know from the play and its production at ATC.  I haven’t seen any other analysis, including from the playwright or the director, that tells me anything more.  As I said earlier, I get the sense that Gibson had some ideas about situations and characters, not themes or ideas, and wrote scenes to depict them.  She doesn’t seem to have come to any conclusions about, if you’ll pardon the expression, the human condition.  If readers of ROT remember my two criteria for good theater, What Rhymes With America squeaks by on the theatricality score—I didn’t much care for what Gibson and Aukin came up with, but it qualifies as theatrical—but it misses entirely on the issue of doing more than telling a story as far as I’m concerned.

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