Review: ‘American Sublime’

InterAct Theater Company is committed to left-leaning political work. That context is the only clue that the hermetically sealed "American Sublime" is not seriously endorsing terrorist acts in the name of perverted patriotism. This satire suggests that post-9/11 grief can be assuaged by killing Muslim leaders in art museums.

InterAct Theater Company is committed to left-leaning political work. That context is the only clue that the hermetically sealed “American Sublime” is not seriously endorsing terrorist acts in the name of perverted patriotism. Like Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” in which eating babies is proposed as a solution to food shortages in 18th century London, this satire suggests that post-9/11 grief can be assuaged by killing Muslim leaders in art museums. The difference is that Swift’s essay was — and still is — shocking, while Patricia Lynch’s play is a bore.

Consider 80 minutes of the following drivel: 

“If we could just go back.”

“People consistently fail one another.”

“Can you ever escape your fate?”

“You need your hope.”

“Fight pain with pain.”

“These are strange and troubling times.”

Wholesome-seeming but profoundly nuts middle-aged couple Constance (Hayden Saunier) and Todd (Steve Hatzai) are in the American wing of a major urban art museum. They are gazing at Bierstadt’s huge 19th century landscape, “Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie,” an example of the American Sublime school of painting. It has become, for them, the sea-to-shining-sea emblem of a vanished and splendid America to which they wish to return. Elsewhere in the museum, a special exhibition of Islamic art is opening with Muslim dignitaries in attendance.

After at first reprimanding the couple, the museum guard (Jefferson Haynes) is persuaded he’s their messenger. He becomes the superhero of his teenage fantasy, the surrogate son who will avenge the loss of their real son in the World Trade Center catastrophe. They offer him a way to end the meagerness of his life and make history: they offer him a gun.

Three good actors have found the flattest Midwestern accents and the most generic gestures (feminine hand to breast, distraught hand to forehead, manly hand to shoulder) to convey these heartland-of-America types. The production, like the playwright, seems to feel contempt for this Wal-Mart world, with its slogans and tears and bad clothes.

The danger in creating characters who are so weird (much talk of angels, of blood), so dull (the gear in Todd’s backpack has cutesy names like Buddy the Bandana and Mr. Rope) and so creepy (Constance gives the guard a foot massage and wipes his feet with her hair) is that our interest in them — or certainly our capacity to identify with them — is diminished. We feel little sympathy for these grief-stricken parents.

The play ends with “America the Beautiful,” the lyrics of its rarely sung second verse providing the evening’s only chilling glimpse of the power this play might have summoned. Constance softly, happily sings, “Thine alabaster cities gleam/ Undimmed by human tears,” and we suddenly, briefly, feel the enormity of our loss and how dimmed by tears our cities have become.

American Sublime

Adrienne Theater, Philadelphia; 106 seats; $25 top

Production

An InterAct Theater Company presentation of a play in one act by Patricia Lynch. Directed by Seth Rozin.

Creative

Sets, Marka Suber; costumes, Susan Smythe; lighting and sound, Shannon Zura; production stage manager, Sara May. Opened, reviewed Jan. 25, 2006. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.

Cast

Todd - Steve Hatzai Constance - Hayden Saunier Museum guard - Jefferson Haynes
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