NEW YORK (AP) — Desperation, poor timing, denial, miscommunication, estrangement, insecurities. All the stuff of comedy — thanks to Melissa James Gibson's gift of quirky, intellectual writing as presented in her inventive new play "What Rhymes With America."
World-premiering off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company, the smart production that opened Wednesday night is filled with thoughtful moments, humor and weird truths. Gibson has a knack for giving her characters increasingly compelling, disjointed dialogue, non-sequiturs and silences.
Director Daniel Aukin has staged many of Gibson's plays in New York, most recently "This," and his compatibility with her writing and intent is on stylish display here. Scenes and dialogue often overlap, reflecting the disparate characters' similar feelings.
Chris Bauer is complex and ingratiating as Hank, a down-on-his luck father in his 40s who, with fiscal imprudence, imploded his marriage of two decades and lost his university job. Gamely working as a silent opera extra, Hank still pines for his almost-ex-wife, Gina (never seen), and tries mightily to rekindle a relationship with his estranged teenage daughter, Marlene (Aimee Carrero, sweet and delicately glum).
With all contact forbidden, Hank nonetheless conducts some earnest, stumbling conversations with Marlene through her closed front door. Bauer, television star of "True Blood" and "The Wire," gives Hank a realistically resigned air, mingling frustration with hope.
Marlene composes and sings dysthymic songs about how messed up the world is, saying flatly that "Far Awayness" is her primary criterion for a college. Yet, while Carrero gives comical readings to teenage self-obsessions, such as "I think my teeth might be going buck," her Marlene also comes across as possibly the most emotionally mature person in this bunch.
Seana Kofoed is endearingly childlike as emotionally stunted Lydia, a neurotic, 40-something medical writer. Lydia's awkward, almost-connecting date with Hank is a very funny, well-timed farce by Bauer and Kofoed.
Da'Vine Joy Randolph is a vibrant, sassy presence as Sheryl, Hank's supernumerary colleague. Incongruously garbed in their Viking/Valkyrie costumes, they discuss life's disappointments on cigarette breaks outside the opera house.
Randolph is initially both dignified and hilarious, especially when "OVERpreparing" for a big audition by rehearsing a dramatic Lady Macbeth speech. ("Go honey!" she says, channeling Lady Macbeth after Macbeth gets promoted to Thane of Cawdor.) Randolph has an almost-over-the-top meltdown when drama-queen Sheryl despairingly realizes her dream of becoming a star is slipping away.
All these messy emotions spill forth on a cool, austere gray set by Laura Jellinek, highlighted by metaphorical sight gags that include a papier-mache likeness of God's head, Lydia's ever-present orange ski hat, and a payphone with an improbably long cord that will never be long enough to reconnect Hank to Gina.
There may not be a word that rhymes with America, yet Gibson expertly illuminates the non-rhyming poetry within ordinary people desperate to figure out how to move forward.