Review: ‘The American in Me’

Rebecca Gilman's early drama "The American in Me," making its official world preem at S.F.'s Magic Theater, further evinces her gift for penning dialogue and situations that cut to the marrow of queasily familiar people-next-door.

Rebecca Gilman’s early drama “The American in Me,” making its official world preem at S.F.’s Magic Theater, further evinces her gift for penning dialogue and situations that cut to the marrow of queasily familiar people-next-door. Yet crafty as it is on a scene-by-scene basis, as a whole the play flits all over the map, with too many subsidiary characters and themes detracting focus from a central failing marriage that never quite engages our empathy.

“American’s” overladen agenda — touching on middle-class financial sinkage, medical-science options for childless couples and myriad other up-to-the-moment issues — feels at once underdeveloped and demographically overspecific. (Of course, the white-collar Caucasian urban/suburban thirtysomething milieu scrutinized here also happens to be U.S. regional theater’s bedrock audience.) Too diffuse by far, “The American in Me” offers entertaining food for thought but very little cumulative impact.

At a Birmingham, Ala., support group for infertile couples run by honey-tongued Southern Belle Winnie (a hilariously shrewish Anne Darragh), adoption, test-tubing and other choices are discussed. Holy roller Winnie gets into a vicious fight with transplanted “Nawtherner” Ben (Jeff Parker). Latter is palpably much more reluctant than his local-born wife Jeannie (Bethanny Alexander) to take on the expensive, oft-unsuccessful fertility treatments.

Having married college sweetheart Jeannie nearly a decade ago, Ben left Boston for her native South, where he’s never fit in. Duly employed as an underperforming financial analyst at the health care conglomerate owned by Jeannie’s Big Daddy-like pater (Julian Lopez-Morillas), Ben does little to hide his sarcastic disdain toward job and milieu.

Worse, he’s already squandered dad-in-law’s force-fed monetary gifts and is afraid to tell pampered Jeannie they’re living way beyond their means. Creditors are closing in, and Jeannie grows ever more adamant about having a child, cost be danged.

It’s a classic American Dream-as-slippery-slope scenario, albeit with new med-technology fillips exacerbating the tension between Little Miss Homemaker’s ticking biological clock and Mr. Breadwinner’s secret fear that all this trad nesting has been a terrible mistake.

But one is hard-pressed to care about either of the protags losing each other (were they ever a good match?) or their “finding themselves.” Gilman delineates these disharmoniously self-absorbed characters with great skill. Still, should a whole play be focused on Nick-and-Honey-alikes?

Perhaps — but this one seldom seems wholly sure that they are, indeed, the focus. “The American in Me” is cluttered with fleeting support characters (five ensemble members play 21 smaller parts), nearly all colorful and vivid enough to distract from the central story as much as they further it.

More troubling still, “American” dabbles in so many contempo lifestyle issues that at times it seems like a composite disease-of-the-week telepic or a women’s-magazine mega-issue. Economic failure and childbearing dilemmas jostle for space with corporate downsizing, kids on Ritalin, working-class vs. white-collar ethics, oddly dated Male Mid-life Crisis stuff, etc. The effect is to make “The American in Me” play like a patchwork of good starting points for several different scripts.

That said, Amy Glazer’s premiere production does a remarkable job lending the pieces some semblance of connective glue. The cast is uniformly terrific, even if actors donning as many as five character hats can’t always stop them blurring together.

The American in Me

Magic Theater Northside; 154 seats; $30 top


SAN FRANCISCO A Magic Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Rebecca Gilman. Directed by Amy Glazer.


Set, John Wilson; costumes, Fumiko Bielefeldt; lighting, Jim Cave; sound, Scott DeTurk; dialect coach, Lynne Soffer; production manager, Scott Paul Cannon. Opened June 15, 2001. Reviewed June 27. Running time: 1 HOUR, 55 MIN.


Jeannie - Bethanny Alexander Winnie - Anne Darragh Louise/Elise/Ellen/Marie - Nicole Fonarow Cory/Tim/Russell/Paul - Richard Gallagher Leeth - Julian Lopez-Morillas Betty/Theresa/Cheryl/Margaret/Nurse - Laura Hope Owen Ben - Jeff Parker Russ/Owens/Stephen - Robert Parsons Don/Lyle/Mike/Donald/Gene - Michael Ray Wisely
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