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The Great American Drama

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 22, 2017

Dan McCoy, Connor Sampson, Nicole Hill,
and Katy-May Hudson
Photo by Hunter Canning

"Democracy," quipped H.L. Mencken, "is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." To hear many in the United States tell it, in the wake of both the election in November and the inauguration of President Trump earlier this week, it's still a concern on everyone's mind. So it's not difficult to understand the philosophy behind The Great American Drama, the new piece created by Connor Sampson and the New York Neo-Futurists that just opened at the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at A.R.T. New York Theatres: Extend the power of creation (or a reasonably apportioned piece of it) of a show to those who may go see it, to examine whether it's possible to craft one ideal evening.

That the answer turns out to be no—at least for me and at this early juncture—only further links Sampson's work with the political system he's not-so-secretly critiquing. You may, however, argue whether the points of failure in this self-described "full-length Neo-Futuristic experiment" line up with those that exist in our own country: The places where The Great American Drama is weakest are those that most depart from the crazy premise of completely crowdsourced theatre and instead try to impose order on a naturally entropic whole.

The conceit is that the group (represented onstage by Sampson, Daniel McCoy, Katy-May Hudson, and Nicole Hill) wants to create the theatrical equivalent of the American Dream: employing hard work and unquenchable dreams to attain a state of live-performance perfection. To this end, they administer surveys on the company's website asking participants to rank the importance of elements such as acting, writing, direction, and design alongside methods of presentation (song and dance, live music, "cutting-edge") and emotional reactions (laughing, crying, being challenged), along with more open-ended appeals like "What is something you would pay to see happen on stage?" and "Please define success in one sentence—as you would for your own life."

What you see at every performance ostensibly reflects the full body of answers, tweaked and grown and evolved over everything that's come before, until the currently scheduled February 5 closing. This means that what you see will necessarily be different than what I saw on January 19. But I can't help but wonder much really changes from night to night. To start with, survey respondents' answers manifest themselves during the show via projections (by Ross Jernigan), most of which certainly cannot be created easily on the fly. (They're also dated, which lets you see how new almost all of them aren't.)

Beyond that, though, will the cast members ever scrap the Hamilton quasi-parody section (since, apparently, that's what people want to see more than anything else)? The stand-up comedy deconstruction? The time capsule sequence, consisting of a lengthy series of monologues hearkening back to September? A verse recounting—with puppets—of the Donald Trump-versus-Hillary Clinton contest? An elaborately silly-serious song called "Soul Bird," written by Andrew J. Hanley and performed with an impressive stab at sincerity by Hill? These scenes, and others like them, that make abundant use of props and dazzling lighting cues (the designer is Justin Cornell) would seem to be all but baked in to the experience.

There are instances of audience interaction both direct (you can pay for an "immersive" ticket that entitles you to becoming a part of the show) and indirect (you're polled before entering the theater about what you want to see, and what you request may be delivered during a late "lightning round" scene), and it's at these moments that The Great American Drama feels most alive and the performers closest to connecting. Too much of the rest of the time, there's a crisply pressed artificial quality to the proceedings; everyone works so hard to make Sampson's point about personal industry that they neglect to merely live. If that's part of the message, too, it's not a particularly satisfying one.

The actors, all Neo-Futurist veterans, are dynamic, resourceful, and apparently tireless, equally adept with the comedy and tragedy that emerge, along with the more indefinable qualities in between. But they can't quite make it add up to anything. Whereas the troupe's best-known show, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (recently restructured as The Neo Show), sports structure as its only consistency, this one sports consistency as its only structure. If that's required in order to get all the other stuff to work, maybe the enterprise was doomed from the get-go? And maybe it's not fixable? Or maybe, if the American Dream is an illusion, the concept's being broken is, in fact, really the whole point?

The good news is that you won't walk away from The Great American Drama without pondering many things about the theatre you consume, including that on the political stage, and how you consume it. The medium itself just needs a rethink. Maybe it will get one; in Neo-Futurist time, there's essentially an eternity between now and February 5. Just prepared for two things: first, to see yourself in the show in one way or another (we critics have already been warned that our appraisals are fair play for inclusion, too—yikes!), and second, to get what you've asked for good and hard.

The Great American Drama
Through February 5
A.R.T./NY Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre, 502 West 53rd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix