Backstage Review—What Rhymes with America
~Review by Norm Robins~
~Photos by Brittney Graves and Norm Robins~
Hank, recently divorced by Gina, are the parents of their teenage daughter Marlene. Marlene at age 16 seems to be possibly the only adult in the play. The divorce was not a happy one. Hank has lost his job at a university, and his research grants are frozen in binding arbitration. Hank explains to Marlene, “It’s not that they don’t like my research. It’s that reality hasn’t caught up to my predictions….” Gina threw him out because he was a deadbeat mooching off of her. He has ruined her financial standing. He still owes her a substantial sum of money.
The play opens with Hank standing in an apartment building hallway talking to Marlene on the other side of the door in her apartment. Technically the set isn’t made that way so a modicum of imagination is needed here. They are standing on one side of a wall and on two sides of a door. Hank wants to come in, but Marlene won’t let him. She says her mother told her not to.
Hank has two encounters with women, Cheryl and Lydia. Cheryl and Hank met at the opera where they are both supernumeraries. Supernumeraries are to opera what extras are to movies. They are both trying to earn a few dollars. Hank is doing so to bring in some needed income. She is doing so because she has trouble getting acting roles. She says she doesn’t do well at auditions. She usually auditions as Lady Macbeth so it’s no wonder. Shakespeare did not treat Lady Macbeth kindly. He portrayed her as coarse and unlettered among other unflattering attributes. He gave her lines like, “Screw your courage to the sticking-place.” Say what? Who knows what that means? But Sara Mackie as Cheryl plays Lady Macbeth beautifully.
Not only does Sara give us a great rendition of a Shakespeare soliloquy, but she gives us a profoundly forceful Wagnerian performance to boot. For some inexplicable reason she obsessively covets the ring in one of Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas and goes to disastrous ends to get it.
Like Hank and Cheryl, Lydia is a loser. She is an unsuccessful short story writer who writes for medical journals. At age 40 she is a self-admitted virgin. Regretfully, she tells Hank every time she gets close to losing her virginity something gets in the way. Lydia and Hank meet in a hospital where Marlene works and Lydia’s father is dying. Hank goes there to spend a few minutes face to face with Marlene who wants only to get back to work.
Hank gets a chance to get some honey on his stinger by seducing Lydia. He is well along in the seduction when the phone rings. It is his ex-wife Gina. Like the schmuck he is he takes the call, confesses his love for Gina, and throws ice water on the seduction. Once again, something gets in the way. Lydia, played by Jamie Albright, is crushed with rejection yet one more time. How many more times can she take this? Jamie draws us into Lydia’s world and forces us to empathize with her. She forces us to participate in Lydia’s weltschmerz. On the outside she forces us to see the pain going on in the inside. This is high quality acting.
Not only does Hank screw up Lydia’s seduction, but he also screws up everything else in his life. He screwed up his marriage. He screws up his relationship with Marlene. He screwed up his relationship with his research funders. He screwed up his university job. As Cheryl points out, he can’t even be a successful supernumerary with no lines and no singing, just a spear to carry around. Cheryl tries some Stanislavsky methods to build a character, but Hank is too obtuse to pick up on what she is saying.
It is a fact that the divorce rate in America is 50% of the marriage rate. That is, if things continue as is half the marriages will end in divorce. The children of these marriages, usually still children, frequently are left to sort things out for themselves without parental guidance and without the wisdom needed to do so. The parents can be too wrapped up in their own lives to lend the kids a hand or to empathize with their predicaments, how to love both parents when they no longer love each other. Perhaps they enlist the children in the war of one against the other. Perhaps they don’t realize the children of today are in training to be the adults of tomorrow and should be treated as such. Perhaps they don’t realize children ought not to be thrown into adult battles.
What a pathetic commentary on our times this is, and it applies to Hank and Gina. Where are the adults in this play? There are none except possibly Gina who never appears onstage and Marlene the teenager…maybe. But our best hope for growing adults in America lies with our Marlenes. If they understand what doofuses the people in their lives are perhaps they will rebel and refuse to be like them. Perhaps this will be Marlene’s right of passage into sane adulthood.
At the play’s end Marlene asks Hank, “What rhymes with America?” What a poignant question. Hank replies, “Nothing. Nothing rhymes with America.” What a banal answer. British Prime Minister (1997-2007) Tony Blair cogently said you judge a country by who is trying to get in and who is trying to get out. People die every year in the waters between Cuba and the U.S. and in the Sonora Desert trying to get in. The U.S. is the envy of the world for its opportunity and its promise. Here are three answers to Marlene’s question. Hope rhymes with America. Freedom rhymes with America. Opportunity rhymes with America. Immigrants seem to know this and cherish it. Too many native-born Americans are ignorant of it.
There are both humor and tragedy in this play. Melissa James Gibson is a playwright worth keeping an eye on. And a tip of the hat to Restless Artists Theater for devoting this entire season to our new century and the young playwrights who write for it. The cast and the direction are very good. The set design is spare forcing us to concentrate on the dialogue and the characterization. The same is true for the lighting.
This is a play worth seeing. It will be performed at the Restless Artists Theater in Sparks beginning January 10 through 26, 2020. For more information and tickets please go to
“What Rhymes with America” written by Melissa James Gibson
Directed by………………………Doug MIshler