The Resulting Chaos That Gallops in When Dreams Are Allowed to Die
By: Lauren Yarger
Iowa. It’s the pinnacle of the American Dream. Somewhere out there in the heart of the country is a land of good, honest people with values who work hard to keep those plains fruited. The fulfilment of dreams waits there. Or does it?
Playwrights Horizon’s world premiere of the play Iowa by Jenny Schwartz with music by Todd Almond makes us wonder.
The play is a zany look at life in America today with our obsession with social media, pills for every possible medical condition and the need to fit in and be loved, among other things, given a humorous treatment by a talented ensemble cast directed by Ken Russ Schmoll. Maybe I am reading too much into the bizarre, instant-message dialogue, quirky lyrics and zany fantasy sequences — many of which have you asking, "what the heck?" — but I found some commentaries on trends in American culture that I liked very much.
Sandy, a self-absorbed, irresponsible (Karyn Quackenbush) mom has found her soul mate. You’ll never guess where. On Facebook!
"OMG and FYI, OCD. Show them the ring," she tells her new fiance as she updates her status to "engaged."
Daughter, Becca (fresh, talented Jill Shackner) is not LMAO at the news. Who is this guy who expects her mother to uproot them and move them away from everything to the middle of nowhere Iowa? What about the things she will have to leave behind, like her one and only friend, Amanda (Carolina Sanchez) and her teacher, Mr. Hill (a comedic Lee Sellars) with whom she’s secretly been in love?
Sand, who can’t remember her daughter’s name or age, but who always remembers to put her down, isn’t concerned, however.
"Do you consider yourself femme or butch, Or in between" she asks Becca. "Not to label. Labeling is disabling. A child is not a soup can, and don.t let anybody tell you different."
Well, if that’s not enough to give a teenager angst, Sandy casually drops the information that Becca apparently was adopted. She wants to ditch the Iowa trip and go live with her dad (also played by Sellars) in London, but he is preoccupied with Liz (Cindy Cheung), the new woman in his life, who is expecting a baby,
"I always wanted to be a dad," he tells his daughter.
Meanwhile, if Becca leaves, shy Amanda might be able to develop a friendship with someone else — maybe even a cheerleader (an uproariously funny Annie McNamara). It turns out cheerleaders are people and have feelings and dreams just like regular people, Amanda learns.
"I’m just a girl with random talents," the Cheerleader confesses. "I want to be serious. Seriously. I want to be taken seriously. I’m serious."
OK, I just laughed out loud when typing that dialogue. The humor is there throughout Schwartz’s script. The message, presented in absurd drama form, might be a bit harder to discern, however.
The action, besides including 14 musical numbers played by a three-person band on the stage, features a group of four ethnically different and politically correct Nancy Drews (led by April Matthis) to help Becca solve some of the mysteries of life, Sellars as the pony everyone wanted as a kid galloping across the stage and a bickering Mormon sisterhood, among other things.
Countering the zany is a touching scene where Becca recalls her peaceful childhood, where as a little girl (played by Kolette Tetlow), she reads Nancy Drew mysteries by flashlight in her beloved tree house, where her loving father visits with her after a day at work. She was content. Will life ever offer such simple happiness again?
The crazy, self absorbed existence of the real world obliterates what goals and dreams we might have had — that we still have if we let ourselves be honest. Iowa isn’t everything they thought it would be, but Sandy and Becca compromise, allowing their need to fit in and have a piece of "normal" trump holding out for what they really want.
The play is about Becca trying to find herself, trying to discover how to become a woman in America, but being thwarted by having parents too caught up in themselves and their own needs to help her along the way.
"Do everything for me," a drunk Sandy tells her 14-year-old as she places her in the driver’s seat of their car.
A sad, but insightful commentary amusingly staged — even if we don’t always know what the heck is going on. At least set designer Dane Laffrey’s lovely backdrop of the Iowa landscape appeared to remind me that for me, Iowa remains a place of wholesome goodness.
Iowa plays through May 10 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd St. NYC. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at , 7:30 pm; Saturday at 2 and 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2 and 7 pm. Tickets: $60 – $75; 212-279-4200" www.playwrightshorizons
Photo: Joan Marcus