Quirky Caucasian Misfits in What Rhymes With America

In Melissa James Gibson’s What Rhymes With America, director Daniel Aukin crashes Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s fiery virtuosity headlong into a backdrop of quirky Caucasians. True Blood‘s Chris Bauer heads up an assortment of offbeat angst-ers struggling to connect and largely failing (on Laura Jellinek’s set, also predominantly white). But in Randolph’s hands, Gibson’s story, ready-made for a touching Tom McCarthy film (that’s a compliment), gets blown up into a sharp commentary on whiteness and repression.

The play ostensibly concerns Hank (Bauer), a recently divorced, unemployed, and heartbroken economics professor. He negotiates these unpleasant paradigms with his daughter Marlene (Aimee Carrero) through the front door of the place he once lived. (Mom, who never appears in the play, has forbidden her from opening the door to him.) When Hank visits Marlene in the hospital where she volunteers, he meets Lydia (Seana Kofoed), a woman who, as her father dies, asks Marlene to read a handwritten note to him. Hank and Lydia tentatively begin dating.

In the meantime, Hank works as a supernumerary at the local opera house, going on frequent cigarette breaks with Sheryl (Randolph), both clad in cheesy Egyptian or Wagnerian costume. Instead of merely assisting Hank’s reboot like some Oprah-type, Sheryl senses her bond with Hank, and in several multi-layered scenes, she rides a dramatic cavalry toward his heavily defended heart. Her tactics include an intense “practice” makeout session (he doesn’t get it), a demonstration of her love of enjambment (he then uses the technique in a poem for Lydia), and a technically dazzling scene in which Randolph plays Sheryl as she re-creates a failed Lady Macbeth audition. She must also convey that Sheryl’s performance, though brilliant, takes an attitudinal spin on the character that might have cost her the role. Randolph nails everything.

Later, Sheryl has her own catharsis, when during The Ring Cycle she realizes that she, amid all the Siegfrieds and Brünnhildes, deserves the ring herself, storms center stage to demand it, and exits. Funny, human, heartbreaking, impeccably performed—the character may not get the guy, but Randolph gets the gold.


David Mamet’s Race, Melissa James Gibson’s This, Liv Ullmann and Cate Blanchett’s Take On Streetcar

In the theater, where your first impression is often the only one you get, matter takes second place to manner. Academics’ dismay notwithstanding, the way of doing a thing usually means more to spectators than the thing itself. This explains, for example, the public’s endless craving for megastars and meister-directors. One reason A Streetcar Named Desire gets constant revival is its embodiment of the theater’s struggle: Blanche and Stanley are like two feuding co-directors, trying to restage, redesign, and rewrite the story of the Kowalski apartment in antithetical terms. Stanley, physically stronger and more truthful, wins the apartment; Blanche proves the primacy of manner over matter by winning the big exit and the audience’s hearts. Stanley’s blunt truthfulness turns out to be, like everything else onstage, an effect, fine when used in the right place, but otherwise a painful intrusion.

David Mamet’s new play, Race (Barrymore Theatre), is all blunt truthfulness—some of which, this being a Mamet play, naturally turns out to conceal lies, or to mask deeper, darker truths. Played fast, under the author’s direction, its 80 or so minutes feel like a speedy round of post-Shavian ping-pong. Debating whether or not to defend a rich man (Richard Thomas) accused of rape in what’s apparently a clear-cut case with racially inflammatory content, a mixed-race pair of law partners (James Spader and David Alan Grier) and their female assistant (Kerry Washington) rattle around in their spacious office like video-game pieces powered by an unseen joystick, zinging Mamet’s poison-dart lines at one another. The end is a Mamet end: Somebody lied, somebody betrayed the side, nobody wins.

What’s new, for Mamet, is the intellectual explicitness. Ideas are discussed in all his major plays, but the characters discussing them are mostly half-educated, half-crazed, or half-distracted by the situation, so that the ideas themselves tend to peter away into the surreal wordplay of colloquial conversation. The three legal brains of Race and their upscale client, in contrast, are all educated folk with their wits about them, even when angry or distraught, and their parts of speech in full working order. The play is post-Shavian in its freedom from Shaw’s Victorian gentility of diction and in its terse willingness to let unresolvable matters go unresolved. Like Shaw, though, Mamet doesn’t substitute expository lecturing for dialogue: The discussion, provocative and at moments incendiary, comes from the characters, with their partialities and blind spots built in.

More fluid than in some of his earlier directorial attempts, Mamet’s staging keeps the action zipping along, and doesn’t seem (as in those earlier instances) to inhibit his actors. Spader, suavely sardonic, makes a strong impression; the hint of smug mannerism that always goes with Thomas’s air of injured innocence suits his role handily. The cast’s weak link, not overly damaging, is Washington, who hasn’t yet summoned the power to project her presence fully. (Mamet, who dislikes overt emotional display in his works, probably hasn’t helped.) The evening’s showpiece performance—grounded, forceful, funny, and smartly shaded—comes from Grier, swallowing unpalatable news and snapping out equally unpalatable opinions with flamboyant finesse.

Finesse is the word, too, for the best aspects of Melissa James Gibson’s This (Playwrights Horizons). Here, a basically conventional situation—the heroine’s guilt over her one mad fling with a married friend—gets treated with such elegant subtlety that all distaste for its conventionality is dispelled, even though it’s basically no more than a contemporary update of a Kay Francis movie. Using a variety of devices to lure you in, often shifting perspective to cast new sidelights on her material, Gibson carefully eschews the sentimentality that would have made her story seem kitschy; instead, her characters take on depth and dignity.

Occasionally, Gibson contrives a touch too baldly—her tormented souls just happen to have as their best friend a gay memory expert—or overworks a verbal tactic. Long stretches of beautifully vivid writing fall into brief gray patches of repetition, which might easily have been trimmed out except that her director, Daniel Aukin, was apparently fixated on some peripheral, and thoroughly superfluous, fancy business involving set pieces. Luckily, these minor visual nuisances can be ignored, since Aukin hasn’t neglected his central task: getting from his cast five uniformly affecting performances, rich, detailed, and sensibly unshowy. I said “uniformly,” but Louis Cancelmi’s excellent French accent deserves a few extra points, and Eisa Davis’s singing deserves a great many. Gibson’s title, incidentally, though perhaps unhelpful for marketing, is exactly right for her script, which describes a condition to which nobody involved wants to put a name; our awareness that the pronoun is the best they can do carries a built-in pathos.

Streetcar itself, currently on view in a production from Sydney starring Cate Blanchett (BAM Harvey Theater), demonstrates that it can get along nicely without pathos. Harsh-toned, slow, and occasionally a little crude, the staging, by Liv Ullmann, sometimes magnifies Tennessee Williams’s strokes of casual realism, like the elevated train that thunders past the Kowalski residence, into giant symbolic stature, giving the play a slightly stilted air. Instead of hurting, this only makes us realize how iconic everything in Streetcar has become, worldwide.

Blanchett’s Blanche is an icon pushed to the edge of its pedestal. A perfect summation of the role for first-time Streetcar riders, to an old hand her extreme, frenetic approach—this Blanche is well on her way to breakdown from the start—explains the play’s grip on pre-Stonewall gays, evoking decades of drag-queen appropriation of the role. (Cf., for instance, the “Miss Destiny” sections of John Rechy’s City of Night.) Inventively (Scandinavianishly?), Ullmann has her stress Blanche’s sense of shame, though unwisely letting her give in too easily, slackening the tension: You’ve never seen a Blanche struggle less with Stanley in the rape scene. The supporting cast is solid, as is Ullmann’s production, for all its eccentricities, but this show is distinctly about the star, from her appearance in the opening moment to the omitted last line as she exits.


Englishwoman in New York

The tunnel starts at an undisclosed location in London. It bores westward under the ocean, jags a bit at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, rises through the denser rock of the continental shelf, and ends at New York City’s Soho Rep, where it deposits British artistic directors.

Or so it seems. When Sarah Benson takes over on October 14, she’ll be the third Brit in a row to run the highly regarded downtown theater. “It was bizarre when I was hired,” says outgoing artistic director Daniel Aukin, a London native, “and it’s bizarre this time.” Julian Webber, another Brit, ran the place for the eight years prior to Aukin. None of them knew each other before their stints at the theater, which was founded in 1975 by two plain-old Americans, Marlene Swartz and Jerry Engelbach.

Soho Rep had a particularly strong run under Aukin, solidifying its reputation for well-produced, idiosyncratic playwriting. During his tenure, the theater won an Obie Award for its 2003 revival of Maria Irene Fornes’s Molly’s Dream and multiple Obies for Melissa James Gibson’s 2001 [sic].

“What’s unique about Soho Rep,” says Benson, explaining the philosophy she’ll use to run the Walker Street theater, “is its position in the New York landscape. Although we’re nestled in the downtown community, we’re also making plays. We’re very downtown in one sense, but we’re also interested in good design and the things many small companies don’t have the resources for. It’s about work that’s specific to the theatrical idiom—not a TV show, not a film. And work that can only be made by a specific artist or group, whether Richard Maxwell, Melissa James Gibson, or Young Jean Lee. There’s nothing interchangeable about a Soho Rep production.”

Benson, 28, graduated from King’s College London and worked with the theater group Arion before a 2002 Fulbright brought her to Brooklyn College’s directing MFA program. Part of the award was a job at Soho Rep, who then hired her in 2004 as associate artistic director and co-chair of its Writer/Director Lab. For the past two years she has also co-curated the Prelude Festival at the CUNY Graduate Center, which is a kind of tasting menu of avant theatrical work scheduled for the upcoming New York season. This year’s ambitious four-day event concluded September 30 and featured performances by Collapsable Giraffe, Carl Hancock Rux, and Tent, among many others.

Benson is cautious about naming writers she’d like to produce at Soho Rep, but notes that “Prelude is a good example of my playwriting aesthetic.” With that hint and a gander at the Prelude schedule, one might expect to see the literate alterna-plays of people like Jason Grote, Will Eno, Thomas Bradshaw, Jenny Schwartz, Amber Reed, or Nick Flynn. Benson also wants to make Soho Rep’s script-development programs “more of a continuum” with its main stage, and hopefully increase the number of annual productions from the currently modest two. Their new season begins October 5 with Adam Bock’s The Thugs.

As for Aukin, he’ll be “seeing what it’s like not to run a theater for a while.” He has several directing projects in the pipeline, two of them film adaptations of plays he directed at Soho Rep: Quincy Long’s The Year of the Baby and Mark Schultz’s Everything Will Be Different. He also spent this past summer at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab working on Gibson’s new play, a modern-day version of The Odyssey, which he calls “the best thing she’s ever written.” As for his Soho Rep legacy, Aukin would like to be remembered for “identifying and supporting visionary plays with a real emphasis on integrated, rigorous design.” It’s a legacy the dynamic, well-connected Benson seems primed to both honor and expand.


The Lucky and the Yucky

Like her heroines, Melissa James Gibson is an intelligent woman who’s let graduate school take over her life. Jen and Sallie will never finish their dissertations. Jen, who rejects all words that allude to even transient relationships (she refuses to call her boyfriend her boyfriend), has been studying ways to construct strangers’ identities by searching through their garbage. ( “She believes that what we discard is of much greater interest than what we keep,” says her nonboyfriend, Karl.) Since she can’t do so without the strangers’ permission, an ethical necessity in academia, “her dissertation is now garbage.” Sallie is writing about alternatives to standard narrative structure, works that run end-middle-beginning or middle-middle-middle instead of beginning-middle-end. Interestingly, as her boyfriend, Lyle, remarks, “she has trouble finishing things.” Instead she fixates on the minutiae of her encounters with her adviser, whom she’s attracted to but doesn’t find attractive.

As this sampling suggests, Gibson has a quick wit and an acute ear, but is more than a little fixated on minutiae herself. Jen and Sallie, glued to their desks and obsessing in the academic present, make an unappealingly static center for even 90 minutes’ scrutiny of verbal detritus; Karl and Lyle, who at least get to move around, seem to have no life at all beyond obsessing over Jen and Sallie. The four performers in Daniel Aukin’s production are all appealing, especially Jeremy Shamos, but have virtually nothing to do. Despite Gibson’s bright bursts of vaudevillian humor, her Nicholson Baker-like navelistic contemplations quickly turn oppressive in a narrative so middle-middle-middle. Karl brings Jen suitcases full of garbage as love gifts; pity reviewers can’t be tempted that way.


The Desk Set

Has your job come to define your sense of self? Such is the problem for the trio of characters in Adam Bock’s quirky comedy, The Typographer’s Dream. Margaret, the typographer, sits at her desk, sandwiched between the desks of Annalise the geographer and Dave the court reporter. No, this is not an office of rhyming employment, but a theatrical occasion for the three friends to regale us with the minutiae of their fields. If their earnestness often seems over-the-top, it’s perhaps out of a desire to feel that their professional choices haven’t been in vain. Personally, they don’t have much to compensate them. Annalise, a Canadian and a drinker, is hypercritical of her American surroundings; Dave unconsciously resists using the pronoun “I” and lies incessantly; Margaret daydreams about crashing her car in such a way as to disable the air bag. Perhaps these middle-class (yet richly neurotic) workaholics should consider an outside hobby?

Bock’s idea seems indebted partly to Beckett’s monologue plays, partly to Melissa James Gibson’s [sic], and partly to more banal situation comedies. If the work doesn’t ultimately fuse together, it maintains an oddball cleverness that is immeasurably helped by the talent of director Drew Barr’s cast. Dressed like a wacky librarian, Meg MacCary reveals the frustrated creativity roiling inside Margaret’s daily fussing with the alphabet. From her anti-American wisecracks to her habit of putting everyone in their place, Kate Hampton humorously exposes the sneaky aggression of Annalise’s geographical preoccupation. Dan Snook locates the pathos at the heart of Dave’s yolkless egg of a personality. While Margaret longs most poignantly for a career change, her fellow drones share the typographer’s dream of discovering themselves anew in the space between letters on the workaday page. —Charles McNulty


Our Mutual Friends

Spend time on Bedford Avenue, Smith Street, or some other bedroom community for young and restless Manhattan commuters, and you may hear tell of the “quarter-life crisis,” a syndrome common among mid-to-late-twentysomething urbanites. (High-risk subgroups include moonlighting artists and musicians, creators of recently defunct Web sites, and anyone remotely involved in publishing.) Onset generally occurs several years after college graduation, when the future’s dizzying spectrum of possibilities begins narrowing into a few well-trodden off-ramps, and lowered expectations take root as both pragmatic coping mechanism and slouching signpost of defeat. Among the telltale symptoms: professional disenchantment, romantic hopelessness, tantric panic, and compulsive sarcasm. The Onion, ever astute, recently provided a suitably formidable German term for this malady’s potential source: Fuerchtenünabwendbarfreundlich, or the dread of something inevitable yet benign—namely, the rest of your life.

Melissa James Gibson’s brisk, unblinkingly deadpan [sic] is a quarter-life crisis center, housing three patients who rent adjacent, closet-size apartments—lending their building an arrested dorm ambience. They’re forever wandering into their shared hallway in furtive search of each other, as if to put off writing a pesky term paper. Frank (downtown luminary James Urbaniak) is a witty deadbeat who has recently decided to parlay his predilection for tongue twisters into a vocation as an auctioneer. Moody, sad-sack composer Theo (Dominic Fumusa), still mourning the mysterious disappearance of his wife, struggles to make headway on his current project: the melody to the theme-park ride “Thrill-O-Rama.” (The minor-key, penny-dreadful clanking of his attempts accompanies each blackout.) He also nurses a rapidly intensifying crush on flighty, indifferent Babette (Christina Kirk), a chronically broke literary aspirant who busies herself compiling a book of what she calls “modern-era outbursts—seminal outbursts.”

Connected by a mutual friend—the unseen but much-discussed Larry—and bonded by mutual animosity toward their landlord, the threesome share a fondness for punny interplay and impromptu word games. (Frank: “What rhymes with ‘letter of eviction’?”) Something of an improvised family, they seem as bickersomely codependent as an old married couple. A floor below, an actual marriage is in its death throes—a disintegration that Babette seems especially attuned to. She’ll often break off reciting her latest seminal outburst (a memorable entry involves toilet-mouthed medieval monks) or halt a typically one-sided phone conversation to listen in on the anguished murmurs drifting upward through the thin floorboards. Louisa Thompson’s expertly economical set stacks the stage vertically: Frank, Theo, and Babette (I guess the Times would call them an “urban tribe”) stand above, trading fusillade quips and occasionally turning to the audience for expository addresses; under them, the figures but not the faces of the unnamed man and woman (Trevor A. Williams and Jennifer Morris) are visible, their helplessly petty exchanges audible but muffled. This split suggests the flip-side perils of city sickness: the rudderless, faintly embarrassed bewilderment that often accompanies singledom versus the terrifying free-fall of a partnership that implodes.

The title of Gibson’s play is never fully accounted for, though it variously connotes existential illness, blindsiding attack (the characters’ ruthless honesty with each other is equal parts tough-love candor and projectile cruelty), and some error that is recognized but allowed to stand, for the sake of an accurate record. [sic] is accordingly a bittersweet, frequently hilarious catalog of mistakes, regrets, opportunities missed or botched. Daniel Aukin directs his cast toward locating the confusion and longing buried under their characters’ ironic armor: Babette is a narcissistic chatterbox whom Kirk manages to invest with a plaintive interior life; Frank’s tireless banter begins to read, in Urbaniak’s perfectly timed performance, as a fear of silent solitude (one further assuaged by the kitschy auctioneering cassettes he plays over and over again). Writer and director alike are not enamored of this group’s withering cleverness so much as empathic toward the ineffable melancholia that all those quotation marks and whiplash one-liners try to hide. Gibson’s play is dry-eyed, tough-minded, resolutely absurdist, and yet nowhere near cynical. Its final words are “Bless you.”

Speaking in Tongues also begins on a divided stage, with mirror-image seductions in progress and in stereo: Leon and Jane (Kevin Anderson and Karen Allen) jump in bed, Pete and Sonja (Michel R. Gill and Margaret Colin) get cold feet, and everyone trudges home, in time for the audience to discover that they’ve all just unwittingly switched partners.

Written by Andrew Bovell, screenplay coauthor of Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, the happenstance-addled play begins as marital autopsy and ends, rather puzzlingly, as convoluted thriller (with each player assuming two or more roles). But both in the bedroom and the police station, coincidence and chance encounter govern supreme—as do seminal outbursts that [sic]‘s Babette might like to index. Total strangers Leon and Pete strike up a conversation in a pub and aren’t even wasted before they go wildly confessional. Soon after, Jane and Sonja meet in another watering hole and duly follow the same pattern. The loaded but realistically banal conversations clash with the play’s overtly schematic architecture; each plot turn, every crucial divulgence, transpires through wantonly contrived procedurals: lengthy answering-machine messages, hostile shrink sessions, impromptu barroom support groups. A stranger is just an enemy you haven’t met, and all the lonely people don’t belong.

Speaking in Tongues does offer flashes of inflammatory insight—like John Patrick Shanley’s Where’s My Money?, it posits that miserable husbands and wives often stay together simply via resentful defiance of the other’s cellar-dwelling expectations. Richard Hoover’s sparse sets emanate a numbing department-store chill, while Brian MacDevitt’s lighting evokes a perpetual nighttime of the soul. Slump-shouldered Anderson and brittle, defensive Colin add nuanced pathos to their thinly drawn outlines of early-middle-aged disillusionment, but Allen and Gill reduce their characters to an exhausting flurry of gesticulations. Indeed, the relentless game of connect-the-dots grows befogging well before Speaking in Tongues pulls a post-intermission quick change, and it’s doubly frustrating that a play so obsessed with tying together disparate threads would leave so many of them hanging.