Urban dramas tend to track in one of two directions. There are the society shows that offer glamour and sophistication as the main attraction, and then there are the kitchen sink dramas that take us beneath the glittering surface of the city and into one or another of its underworlds.
What Rhymes with America, as presented by the Producing Unit at Center Stage on Sunday, September 27, mixes the two genres to uncertain effect. On the one hand, Hank (Bill Egan) is an economist, and although he has recently lost both his research funding and his wife, from whom he is separated, he’s been a member of the middle class for long enough to earn an advanced degree and start a family. His idea of a big comedown in terms of employment is his new gig as a supernumerary in New York opera productions. Backstage at the opera, Hank befriends (and kisses) an aspiring actress named Sheryl (Ivy Vahanian), and then he meets another potential new partner, Lydia (Deborah Bertling) while stalking his daughter Marlene (Ariel Eakin) at her hospital job.
Despite Hank’s advanced education and seemingly upper middle class cultural milieu, he’s dysfunctional in the extreme, and that’s where things get confusing. His love interest Lydia is the proverbial/literal 38 year-old virgin, and Hank’s abortive deflowering of her has to be one of the most unpleasant scenes I’ve witnessed in a theater. Hank’s inability to accept the loss of his wife rears up in a thoroughly predictable way, and he handles it about as badly as one could imagine. In a more coherent and better-written script, the intense humiliation Lydia suffers might make some kind of dramatic sense, but here it seems gratuitous, grim, and depressingly meaningless.
The underworld depicted by What Rhymes With America is an amorphous one, not so much a subculture as an unwilled fraternity of imbeciles. All that these characters have in common is an inability to do anything constructive. Marlene manages to strum a guitar and sing a few fragments of song, and Sheryl goes off on a couple of monologues borrowed from Shakespeare, but nothing as substantial as a plot ever materializes. The play is more a collage of scenes than a story, and even those scenes are frequently marred by the tick-tock of repetitive dialogue in which characters repeat one another’s lines as questions.
Clearly playwright Melissa James Gibson had something in mind when she slapped these slight vignettes together, but unfortunately the end result is similar to the pseudo profundity of the play’s title, which promises political or cultural insight into contemporary America, and then delivers the intensely anti-climactic irony of the following exchange: “What rhymes with America? Nothing.”