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How to Be an American!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 18, 2016

Looking for a foolproof curative for our current contentious (some might say unbearable) election season? Who can blame you? Alas, no such balm is to be found in How to Be an American!, the "political cabaret" by T. Cat Ford that just opened at the York Theatre at St. Peter's. The best that can be offered by this mildly pleasant, occasionally tuneful, and roundly forgettable entry in the York Theatre Company's on-again-off-again New2NY series of staged-reading premieres is to remind you that things have always been more or less as bad as they are today. If you're sick of the endless sniping between Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and their various surrogates, that's not cold comfort—it's downright frozen.

Ford and her director, Bill Castellino, are sending us back to the New York of the first decade of the 20th century, when the Tammany Hall machine pulled every string of Big Apple electoral politics. At an orientation meeting for recent immigrants (that's us), head honcho and Empire State legislator George Washington Plunkitt wants to prepare the union's latest citizens for protecting their well-being and that of their party by any means necessary. At one end of the spectrum, this involves reminding them that his Democratic Party is the only one with their best interests at heart. At the other, he extols the virtues of honest graft, keeping men with book learning out of office, and following the only ballot-casting strategy that matters: "Vote early! Vote often! Vote Tammany!" (In case there's any question about how to accomplish this last one, instructions about growing a beard and strategically shaving two separate times on election day are helpfully provided.)

This is all drawn from the real Plunkitt's own speeches and writings (including the collection Plunkitt of Tammany Hall), as well as Hall records, so it's not quite as unbelievable as you may wish it were. An extra sheen of authenticity comes by way of the score, which is exclusively a selection of period songs ranging from unquestionable standards ("Yankee Doodle Dandy," by George M. Cohan) to the vaguely familiar (Gus Bryant and Vincent Edwards's Tammany anthem) to the more obscure (Shepard N. Edmond's "I Got to Live Anyhow Till I Die"), and our own national anthem manages to sneak in there toward the end. And as delivered by Plunkitt (Tim Jerome) and his ethnically handpicked cronies Tony Caponi (Italian, played by Frank J. Paul) and Aaron Jefferson Levi (Jewish, Dan Manjovi) accompanying themselves on, respectively, drum, ukulele, and piano, they have the informal liveliness you'd expect to find at just such an event. (The musical director is Ryan Touhey.)

Ultimately, though, the numbers don't add much except for a few moments of melody, and their gentle, now-old-fashioned attitudes violently clash with the consistently conniving book. That's undoubtedly the intent, at least in part: reminding us that wrapping oneself in literal and cultural patriotism in order to subvert what it stands for is not a new technique. But it doesn't make for much in the way of coherence or excitement, which are helpful things to have when your show only has two jokes and the first is worn out after about 10 minutes of the 70-minute running time. (The second, the constant intervention of a moralizing preacher played by D.C. Anderson, is not funny enough to last even that long.)

Jerome makes a warmly avuncular Plunkitt, gracefully hiding his grease beneath a too-broadly grinning fa├žade, and though Anderson, Manjovi, and Paul are saddled with only one-note characters, they squeeze them for all the fun they can. Castellino's staging is simple, with only a few bunting-draped music stands serving as set pieces (James Morgan is billed as the "scenic consultant"), and aside from a bit of twirling and parading in circles, there's not much choreography to speak of. You definitely get the impression that the show-within-the-show is being put on by people who know nothing about the craft they're imitating (and are doing it for an audience that probably doesn't, either).

It's not clear, then, what more this evening could or should be, assuming it evolves beyond this debut production—it's intentionally of limited ambition and limited scope, so a limited impact is basically in the cards. If you want something historical, educational, and sort of entertaining, it will suffice well enough, much like the disposable musicals of the period it's aping (their original scores notwithstanding). But you can turn on any news show and see just as much unfolding before your very eyes, and have a good chance of getting an extra shot of rage as part of the bargain. Sure, it may be painful, but you're feeling something—and that's a step further than How to Be an American! goes.

How to Be an American!
Through September 25
York Theatre Company at St. Peter's Church, 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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