Can theater survive in a world of tweeting and Facebook, iPads and PlayStations, and films in 3D that cost more to make than some nations’ gross domestic product? If it is as simple, good, and devastatingly truthful as “What Rhymes with America,” the brilliant new play at Manhattan's Atlantic Theater Company by Melissa James Gibson, theater will not only survive, it will thrive.
Ms. Gibson gives us a stark, antiseptic world in which the only color in the landscape is that of the humans in it. But their colors do not form a rainbow; rather, they sit alone, in disconnected pools of drab color.
Entering the theater we are greeted by Laura Jellinek’s stunning white-on-white set, giving us a space with multiple possibilities: a dying man’s hospital room, a Manhattan apartment, a stage door outside the Met, and more. There is a stainless steel exhaust fan spinning in a free-standing column stage right. Playing in the background is a subtle tonal song by Ryan Rumery, the composer of the production’s sound and music.
When the play begins, we see Hank (Chris Bauer), an unemployed economist, with his 17-year old daughter, Marlene (Aimee Carrero). Hank is standing outside the door to the apartment he used to share with Marlene and her mother, from whom Hank is estranged. Even though her mother is away, Marlene refuses to open the door to see her father, obeying her mother’s orders.
They speak through the closed door.
“It’s just a temporary situation,” Hank tells Marlene.
“It is?” she asks.
“You guys hate each other,” Marlene says.
“We don’t hate each other.”
Marlene interrupts her father. “Anyway, anyway, anyway, anyway.”
Marlene is studying for her SAT’s. She is also a volunteer at a local hospital, one that is clearly short-staffed, where she finds herself doing pretty much everything.
“I don’t think they’d even notice if I started operating,” she says.
Temporary is the key word with Hank. His estrangement from his wife is temporary, as is the apartment he has lived in for the last six months, with a mattress on the floor and sour milk in the refrigerator.
Temporary, too, is his job as a supernumerary at the Met. It is there that he meets Cheryl (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), with whom he sneaks cigarette breaks in an alleyway outside the stage door.
Ms. Randolph makes the kind of entrance in “What Rhymes with America” that most actors dream of but few could pull off. It must be tempting to an actor with so much power to go over the top, but she keeps a leash on it, to devastating effect.
Cheryl is an artist, seeking purity on the stage. She critiques Hank’s performance as a supernumerary gladiator.
“I look over at you sometimes, and you don’t look triumphant,” she tells him.
Temporary, too, it turns out, is Hank’s fling with Lydia, played by the very funny Seana Kofoed. Hank meets Lydia at the hospital, where he has gone in a desperate attempt to connect to his elusive daughter.
Lydia’s father has just died (a wonderful scene with Ms. Kofoed and Ms. Carrero). She feels a failure because she never had children.
“Were you ever married?” Hank asks her.
“I dated briefly,” she answers.
Lydia is a writer who was recently fired from her job with a medical journal. She was hired by the journal, despite knowing nothing about medicine, to make the words flow better, she tells Hank. As she kept writing, she began to believe that she understood what she was writing about.
“Then, once I added a symptom that I just made up,” she says.
“Words are little fuckers,” she concludes.
Mr. Bauer, who has a house in Sag Harbor and is on the board of Bay Street Theatre there, gives a wonderful performance as Hank, seamlessly moving from straight man to comic and back again.
Wonderful, too, is Ms. Carrero, who picks up a guitar after the first scene, searching for musical rhymes. She has a lovely voice and a simplicity about her acting that is quite attractive.
All four actors come close to achieving the impossible in contemporary theater, the feel of an ensemble company, in which actors have worked together for years. Impossible, because actors at this level of talent have agents and projects and people to meet and places to go. But for 90 minutes, these four manage to make all that disappear.
The design team does achieve the ensemble feel, all elements working together to enhance the text. Besides the aforementioned set (which I would go see even without the play) and the sound and music, kudos should be given to Matt Frey’s lighting design (the doorway that is such a crucial element in the show is imaginary, suggested only by two pools of light, separated by about a foot and a half) and the costumes by Emily Rebholz, which capture the look and feel of the piece.
Ensemble, too, is this team of writer and director. The director Daniel Aukin shares Ms. Gibson’s work with us in a way that pulls us into each character’s world. Scenes overlap, as they do in life, and we are allowed to see four people, each on their own island, each wrestling with their own demons.
It may be pointless to try to describe Ms. Gibson’s writing in words. As she says, they are such “little fuckers.” Suffice it to say she gives us the music of our language in a compelling, theatrical way.
Hank’s journey ends where it began, outside the door to his daughter’s apartment. This time, they touch hands through a crack in the door, but it is not a triumphant moment. It is a moment of despair, and perhaps that is what rhymes with America.
“What Rhymes With America” is playing at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater at 336 West 20th Street in Manhattan through Dec. 30.