By Isaac Butler
(This isn't a review-- how could it be, when What Rhymes With America is directed by a dear friend and former employer?-- but I wanted to write about the play anyway, and why I think it's worth seeing.)
What Rhymes With America is a play about failure, the particular failure of this American moment, and a group of people who were, at some point, possessed of the particular American feeling that they were destined for greatness. It's a play about what happens when ambition dries up. When you tried to make it but didn't. When it turns out you are destined for an ordinary life.
This is often the thematic material for cruel comedy. Think David Brent in the original The Office putting out a single, not understanding what kind of celebrity he is. But What Rhymes With America's great strength is its nearly limitless compassion for its characters. Even though there is something ridiculous about each of them-- and plenty of comedy is made from this-- they're all fully human, and their sadness gradually becomes our sadness over the course of watching the play.
What Rhymes With America centers on Hank (played by Chris Bauer), who begins the play washed up and nearly broke. A former economics professor, he now works as an extra in opera productions, and, despite being forbidden to see (or even look at) his daughter Marlene, still believes there's some chance his ex-wife will take him back. Meanwhile, he lives in a crappy apartment with a minifridge whose sole occupant is spoiled milk. He thinks its temporary. He's lived there for over a year.
Through Hank, we meet a fellow extra, Sheryl (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) who dreams of success as a legit stage actress, and through Marlene's volunteer job at a hospital, we meet Lydia (Seana Kofoed), an aspiring short story writer who has never published anything, as she visits her father on his deathbed. Meanwhile, Marlene wanders the background of the action, attempting to compose songs on an acoustic guitar (this device, which could be deadly annoying and twee, actually ends up working beautifully).
As Sheryl readies for an audition and Hank and Lydia go on a date, each character ends up confronting their own failure to be special, and their longing for a life that none of them can have. There's a subtle metatheatical thing going on here as well... part of the dare behind the play is that Melissa James Gibson is writing about a group of people spectacularly ill-suited to being main characters in a conventional drama. Two of them are literally extras, and Sheryl's longing for the limelight leads to a lengthy (and brilliant) monologue on this very theme at the end of the play.
Hovering in the background of all of this is death. Lydia's dying father appears in only one scene of the play, wordless, comatose, lying in a hospital gurney, only his feet visible, yet his presense in the play is no mistake. An unspoken subtext runs throughout the work, one where these middle aged characters are struggling against their own insignificance, longing to achieve something worthwhile before they die. Lydia articulates the disappointment at realizing she will never have children, Sheryl's hunger to make it is so palpable it almost takes corporeal form. Hank had the significance he craved, a wife, a child, published books and articles, but cannot come to grips with the fact that he's lost it. Marlene, his daughter, struggles with the realization that, contrary to what her parents-- acting like most parents-- have told her, she is average.
This could all feel-- and I'm going to guess for some viewers will feel-- like the most first world of first world problem plays. Yet for me, What Rhymes With America works and works beautifully, in part because in mines its psychological and emotional terrain with such precision and care, and in part because-- as its unfortunate title hints at-- it's about more than these four characters. In its own way, What Rhymes With America is very much responding to this political and economic moment, the moment when Americans are beginning to realize that the past reality of America-- even the recent past of the 90's-- and the expectations that it created for us as a people were illusory and is now over. This is a play for the economic crash, for the era when we'll have to start moving away from the coasts, when our expectations of the future are downsized,when our children's options will be narrower rather than broader than our own. And while, yes, these are first world problems, that doesn't stop them from being problems.
As someone who both failed in his first career (in terms of making a living at it) and suceeded (in terms of fulfilling a childhood dream) and is now embarking on a new one (writing) with all sorts of pitfalls and possibilities for failure again and finds himself having moments (one's happening right now) when the realization that he's going to die fills all available mental space and his heart races and yet uses this fear to fuel his ambition because he does not want to die having not contributed anything, because there's been great investment in him from the get-go, becuase that's the kind of ego he has on him, because he's been told that he's special, because he believes it (sometimes), because even believing it, he knows that that might be meaningless, that you can have all sorts of talent, ambition, drive, work ethic and all of it and still fail, and that anxiety keeps him up nights, or rather, makes it so that sleep is a paper-thin thing, easily torn by the clack of the dog's nails on the floorboards, or a car backfiring on the street, and then he can't sleep and spends nights staring at the television instead of working, and thinking this is wasted time, I'm almost halfway done, but cannot live like this all the time-- who could?-- and so works to calm himself, which means forgetting the whole possibility of failure thing, not to mention the inevitability of death thing, so he can get back to work, and to life, and to love, and thus feels caught in this strange looping paradox where the only way to do the thing that might bring some level of peace with regards to death and failure is to forget temporariliy about death and failure, as someone who is that kind of someone, What Rhymes With America struck the deepest of chords, let's say an E-flat major way down at the bottom of the piano, with a cello underneath somewhere, and I've been thrumming ever since.