Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Melissa James Gibson’s What Rhymes with America is that it is not quite as bad as it should be. As the title suggests, it is riddled with portentous dialogue; characters ask questions like, “Do you think God has long hair?” and end sentences with the phrase, “…this thing called life on earth.” A few spare but saccharine piano chords are played throughout. There’s even a song, performed intermittently and accompanied by an acoustic guitar, with the refrain (written in all caps in the script), “THE UNIVERSE IS A MESSED UP PLACE.” Then, of course, the title is spoken in the play, a trope that hasn’t been effectively used since Sydney Pollock’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
And yet, this production of What Rhymes with America is not completely unbearable. The play follows a group of lonely New Yorkers working on varying degrees of baggage: Hank (Chris Bauer) is an economist who has lost his job and his wife and has picked up a gig as an extra for an opera company to make some cash; his daughter, Marlene (Aimee Carrero), bombs the SATs and begins to realize that she is both physically and intellectually mediocre; Lydia (Seana Kofoed), who briefly dates Hank, is a middle-aged virgin and unsuccessful short story writer who avoids relationships because of her substantial intimacy issues; and Sheryl (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), another extra, struggles with her failures as an actor.
Despite the overwhelming dead weight of the dialogue, director Daniel Aukin’s show is always low-key and unassuming; though set in New York, it feels more like Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, a dying town whose inhabitants are only half-heartedly depressed about their circumstances. While smoking outside the opera house, Hank tells Lydia, “If it weren’t for Marlene, I’d have killed myself by now.” “Really?” she asks. “No,” he replies. Maybe he would, maybe he wouldn’t, but he’s not going to bother anyone—including, to a certain degree, the audience—with his maudlin shit.
Mr. Bauer, a long way from the steamy, Southern pulp for which he is known, has an affecting, homely charm. In his mouth, Ms. Gibson’s platitudes play less like juvenile, authorial masturbation and more like gravely, middle-aged wisdom. And Ms. Kofoed earns a fair bit of sympathy, shuffling around the stage in heavy winter clothing that seems there more for protection against people than for protection against weather. While undressing her, Hank begins to remove her bright red cap. “I’d like to keep that on,” she tells him.
But it is Mr. Aukin who deserves the most praise for keeping this leaky ship afloat—against all odds, he has transformed what should be an embarrassing production into a merely middling one. At one point, after Hank exhales one of his nauseating banalities, Sheryl asks him, “Is that super-deep or meaningless?” It is, most assuredly, the latter.