The profound and the twee have never been far apart in Melissa James Gibson’s remarkable plays. Since I first met her stymied urban intellectuals in the weird and original piece titled [sic] at Soho Rep in 2001, her work has deepened. Her people score high on verbal and low on social skills, obsessing about unfinished dissertations, apathetic romances and the unbridgeable gap between words and reality. They muse big, but lead small, odd lives. (You either identify strongly, find them curious, or cannot abide them.) In 2009, Gibson reached a new level of maturity with This, a touching study of a young widow and her circle of friends. Her newest, What Rhymes with America, feels like a step back. It’s a melancholy story, told in an affecting, minor key, but overly quirky details detract from your sympathy for its failed protagonists.
Scenes between the divorced Hank (Chris Bauer) and teenage Marlene (Aimee Carrero) bookend the play. This father and daughter face each other (so to speak) through a door that the girl refuses to unlock (we get the metaphor). We learn that Hank lost his ex-wife’s savings to unwise investments, and now he picks up cash as a supernumerary in the Metropolitan Opera’s lavish crowd scenes. On cigarette breaks at the Met, Hank meets Sheryl (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a frustrated thespian. The fourth character in this gallery of lost souls is Lydia (Seana Kofoed), a middle-aged virgin and unpublished writer of stories “about things that take place in, um, transitional spaces.” It hardly needs saying that everything is transitional in Gibson’s overdetermined world.
For all its schematic signposting (and wan musical interludes), Gibson writes concise, witty dialogue, and Daniel Aukin’s spare, delicate staging captures the emotional isolation of these characters. In the end, What Rhymes is self-selecting: It will draw in those who treasure the plays of Will Eno, Annie Baker or Sarah Ruhl, or their indie-film equivalents (Miranda July, et al.). Older Atlantic Theater Company subscribers may leave confused or even irritated, but they will now be acquainted with one of our most ingenious and beguiling playwrights.—David Cote
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