That is the actual answer to What Rhymes With America, which is the title of Melissa James Gibson's often hilarious and consistently thoughtful new play, now receiving its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company. But that philosophically-packed query, posed at the show's end by 16-year-old aspiring songwriter Marlene (Cartoon Network star Aimee Carrero), is just one of the many piercing questions consuming all four of Gibson's richly drawn characters, each of whom is desperately searching for his or her place in an increasingly confusing world.
Marlene, whom we meet in the opening scene of this impressionistic 80-minute one act, is a clearly bright young woman struggling not just with the ordinary concerns of teenagers,such as taking the S.A.T., but with the horribly fractured relationship between her father Hank (Chris Bauer, best known for his work on HBO's True Blood) and her (unseen) mother Gina, with whom she lives. Hank, an unemployed (and apparently unsuccessful) economist, is still in love with Gina, but she wants him completely out of her and Marlene's lives, and has put her daughter in the middle of their battle.
The floundering, socially awkward Hank tries to draw Marlene to him like a life raft, but she is simply unequipped to be his support system. Eventually, he forms strong (if temporary) bonds with two very different women: Sheryl (Tony Award nominee Da'Vine Joy Randolph), an aspiring actress and fellow supernumerary at the opera who opens herself up to him emotionally, and Lydia (Drama Desk nominee Seana Kofod), a 40-plus-year-old virgin whose father has just died and who opens herself physically to Hank (with rather disastrous consequences).
Director Daniel Aukin, a longtime specialist in Gibson's work (having directed the New York productions of her plays This, Suitcase, and Brooklyn Bridge), displays his expertise in numerous ways, including physically navigating the cast ably around Laura Jellinek's sprawling, mostly-white unit set that serves (sometimes simultaneously) as Marlene's apartment, Hank's bachelor pad, and the local hospital.
More vitally, Aukin guides the cast through Gibson's sometimes dense and sometimes deceptively simple speeches, so they never sound unnatural. In doing so, what becomes painfully clear in Bauer's heartfelt, carefully calibrated performance is that Hank not only really has no clue how to deal with any of the women in his life (including the unseen Gina, as evidenced by some brilliantly written one-sided phone calls); he is also perhaps psychologically unequipped to deal with any of the complexities of existence, whether it be forecasting the economy or living alone. While Hank stresses in one exchange that he is not "pathetic," Bauer inspires pathos for this innately decent, lost soul.
As good as Bauer is, the cast's women leave the strongest impression. Randolph, who showed off her comic timing last season in the ill-fated Broadway musical Ghost, gets her share of laughs here as well as the perpetually angry, straight-shooting Sheryl, but her devastating breakdown in her last scene will leave some audience members in tears.
Carrero (who is actually 24 and making her off-Broadway debut) is completely believable as an angst-ridden adolescent (and also displays a fine singing voice), while Kofoed -- who physically and verbally brings to mind Christina Kirk (who appeared in some of Gibson's early work) – takes what could be a ridiculous character, with her lack of sexual experience and addiction to chewing gum, and makes Lydia instantly recognizable as the kind of person we see every day and never really think about.
It may be true that nothing rhymes with America, but this very fine play has more than enough poetry of its own.
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