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What Rhymes with America

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Chris Bauer and Aimee Carrero.
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia.

Disconnection runs rampant throughout What Rhymes with America, the new play by Melissa James Gibson that just opened at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater. Four people, who share little in common besides their innate inabilities to relate with others on a human level, continually collide as they attempt to navigate the difficult realities of love and loneliness that have been thrust upon them over decades. And the ways they deal with—or, often more accurately, fail to deal with—the traumas that result constitute both the highs and lows of this dangerously unpredictable and sometimes too self-satisfied comedy.

The underlying ideas here are not new for Gibson, who in previous works like [sic], The Suitcase, and This has charted similar territory across the span of adulthood from post-college to solid middle age. Both she and her frequent collaborator, director Daniel Aukin (who helms here as well), operate in a sharp, poetic, staccato style that captures the unfinished sentences and half-formed thoughts that make up so many interactions, while also demonstrating that these false turns can mask deeper and more uncomfortable truths we'd prefer to keep hidden. And for this play, centering on a between-jobs middle-aged economist named Hank (played by Chris Bauer), who's unable to resume his life even after a lengthy separation, that approach would seem to be ideal.

In no small measure it is, especially as we first meet the people who surround Hank. Foremost among them is his 16-year-old daughter, Marlene (Aimee Carrero), who lives with his estranged wife and has been so programmed that she won't even open the door for dad. They spend their initial exchange together staring vaguely at each other through its (unseen) obstruction, and speaking with just as much misdirection about the shared feelings and experiences that no longer mesh. When, later on, Hank visits the hospital at which Marlene volunteers, she's literally unable to look at him, forever staring morosely (usually at us) as he attempts to engage her eyes and her brain more directly.

Hank is as dysfunctional in other areas. After more than two decades of marriage, Hank is socially awkward around others, which he proves in trying to woo and bed Lydia (Seana Kofoed), a woman he met at the hospital whose own romantic and sexual history is distinctly underdeveloped for someone in her 40s. His strongest relationship, in fact, is actually with Sheryl (Da'Vine Joy Randolph, recently of the musical Ghost), a struggling actor he meets while working as a supernumerary at the opera house: She can't help but look at him and analyze his psychological choices during crowd scenes, and is more than willing to give him the kissing practice he needs, even if it comes tied to the internal inadequacies that drive her every bit as much as his own do him.

While Gibson focuses on these aspects, What Rhymes with America maintains its consistent level of engagement. Bauer is an engrossing presence to have at its center, sturdy of manner and voice yet inescapably vulnerable beneath them: You believe that this is a man who could get into a shouting match with his wife over the phone when he's just seconds away from sex with his new fling. Carrero has no trouble projecting the angst and confliction of adolescence as Marlene and suggests a vivid personality beneath the parched skin, just looking for the opportunity to break free. There's a delightful sense of damage and misplaced affection inherent in Kofoed's portrayal, underscoring Lydia's sadness and desperation; and Randolph tackles Sheryl with gusto, if rarely quite the detail needed to make more like a person than a dramatic catalyst.

The specific brand of quirkiness that has traditionally characterized Gibson and Aukin's work, however, does not always find a natural home here. These are all beaten-down people who are struggling to reawaken to what life has to offer, and they're too infrequently given the room they need to evolve on their own terms. This problem is partially embodied in Laura Jellinek's set, which in primarily depicting the hospital (with most of the other scenes established by Matt Frey's lights) pushes the theme of unhealthiness a bit too far. And Aukin's staging, though minimalistically inventive, often calls as much attention to itself as it does the writing. (The 20-foot cord attached to "the last payphone in New York City" elicits far too many laughs at just the wrong time, for example.)

Of course, they're limited by Gibson's contributions, which are scattered whenever they're not sobering. The scenes following Hank and Lydia's aborted assignation, in which she tries to reclaim the bra she left behind, make too explicit the undercurrents of obsessiveness that are more interesting when they're subtle. Much the same is true of Marlene's recurring strumming of a guitar and singing songs of woe, not just punctuating but overwhelming many scenes, and pushing us away from these people rather than bringing us closer to them. And Sheryl's endless late-show litany of the myriad figures she's obsessed over while watching The Ring Cycle may be a manifestation of her wayward mind, but it plays as an intellectual exercise in comedy that, at least at the performance I attended, you could feel suck the air out of the audience.

Excesses like these obscure what is, at its core, a simple and lovely tale of emotionally lost people rediscovering life, with all the complexities, hope, and heartbreak it entails. Their journey is hinted at in the title itself: a non-question question that is addressed, however incongruously, by evening's end in exactly the way you expect. If the nuances could be less clouded by silliness, there's an inescapable power to the play's contention that sometimes nothing really can be everything.

What Rhymes with America
Through December 30
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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