In Melissa James Gibson’s What Rhymes with America, the newest theatrical offering from The Producing Unit, recently separated and chronic underachiever Hank (Bill Egan) seeks to reinvent himself by cultivating relationships with new women and redefining his connection with his teenage daughter, Marlene, outside of the context of his ending marriage. While fumbling to discover inspiration within this fresh life path and hone his sense of personal identity, Hank befriends Sheryl (Ivy Vahanian), an actress aspiring to be a lead player rather than a member of the Valkyrie ensemble, and Lydia (Deborah Bertling), a middle-aged virgin whose ambition to be accomplished outweighs her actual abilities.
Dry, ironic wit abounds as these characters seek to understand themselves in a more certain capacity. Sheryl and Lydia are neurotic and a bit eccentric — not unlike the petulant Hank, who struggles to overcome the defeat of a failing marriage and the disappointment of a stagnant career. Only Marlene, sage beyond her 16 years, offers an acute awareness of the importance of making sensible life choices. The implication of an ugly post-separation aftermath makes Marlene’s voice of maturity both amusing and bittersweet; her childhood whimsicality has been dampened by the emotional disarray of parents whose relationship was destroyed by their inability to meet each other’s (and their own) unrealistically high expectations of life. Amid the spoils of a divided family, Marlene finds satisfaction in the admission of her own averageness. Her rebellion is one of distancing herself from her parents’ toxic lifestyle and finding contentment in the perceived ordinariness of her life.
Gibson’s script is a complex dramedy sculpted with sophisticated language. What Rhymes with America illustrates the dysfunction that occurs when inflexible, unaware characters find themselves in periods of major personal transition. Intimate, two-person scenes allow for the conveyance of details regarding Hank, Sheryl, and Lydia’s potent need to escape from (what they consider to be) the curse of a life lived in obscure mediocrity. For instance, Hank maintains that he is still in love with his wife, though it’s unclear if he’s more depressed about losing the woman or being faced with his failure.
Director Peter Frisch is passionate about the word-craft artistry of Gibson’s script and is focusing the production to accentuate the melody and rhythm within the dialogue. Frisch described the process for developing this play as “very disciplined.” The depth of humor and subtle lyrical beauty in the play’s language adds richness to the layers of storytelling and presentation of thematic elements. Frisch and the performers seek to marry nuanced acting that promotes the tempo and shape of the language with the throbbing discomfort of tentative (yet necessary) personal reinvention.
With an emphasis on overcoming emotional barriers (often represented onstage by physical obstructions between characters), What Rhymes with America shows deeply flawed people taking exploratory steps in uncharted directions. Hank’s painstaking efforts to rebuild his social network after the collapse of his marriage are alternately witty and agonizing. As the barricades between the characters weaken, relationships are forged through a delicate osmosis of honesty and emotions. Regarding her characters’ experiences, Gibson stated in the Gothamist: “… all of these people are in very different stages of life, but I think part of what’s going on for all of them is the effect of foiled ambition. Just how vulnerable one has to make oneself to try and achieve anything.”
Gibson’s play presents adults struggling to navigate the unpredictable landscape of their lives in transition. A multilayered piece, What Rhymes with America asks, where do we go from here? The answer is both obvious and unfathomable: We go forward.
What Rhymes with America runs September 25-October 4, at Center Stage Theater, 751 Paseo Nuevo. For more info and tickets, call (805) 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org.