Credit set designer Laura Jellinek for a nice piece of deceptive visual design. Her abstract white set makes “What Rhymes With America” look like the avant-garde piece that scribe Melissa James Gibson would like to think she’s written, instead of the trite celebration of mid-life arrested development that it manifestly is.
Appearances do matter, and helmer Daniel Aukin, who has directed a number of Gibson’s plays, makes savvy use of a good tech staff to put a high gloss on the thin material he’s been given to work with.
In a realistic setting, a grown man like Hank (Chris Bauer, more impressive as the lawman in “True Blood”) who lands on the doorstep of his old apartment, begging for an audience with his estranged wife and teenaged daughter, would be instantly known for what he is — a loser. But lacking an actual doorstep or even some solid walls to ground him in the real world, the character seems to inhabit a broader landscape, like some alien soul lost in a hostile universe.
That interesting existential angle evaporates once Hank begins to unburden himself to his 15-year-old daughter Marlene (played with snappy wit and crackling intelligence by Aimee Carrero). Clinging to the delusion that the breakup of his marriage is “a temporary situation,” he pleads with the girl to convey hopeless messages of devotion to his wife, who hates his guts. No wonder Marlene is impatient with her old man and aghast at his infantile behavior.
The rest of the play consists of variations on the same theme — Hank’s petulant refusal to grow up and face the music for whatever got him in such dire straits. He won’t even accept the hard cold fact that he’s lost both his grant and his job at the university. (“It’s not that they don’t like my research. It’s that reality hasn’t caught up with my predictions.”)
Flailing about in the real world, Hank makes the kind of decisions that a 15-year-old boy would consider immature.
Forced to find a job, he becomes a supernumerary at the opera, giving him occasion (far too much occasion, actually) to interact with Sheryl, an old pro at this game played with unrestrained flamboyance by Da’Vine Joy Randolph. Stumbling into a relationship with Lydia (the misused but still appealing Seana Kofoed), another social misfit living in her own weird world (“Do you think God has long hair?”), he screws that up, too.
“I am not pathetic,” Hank insists. But that’s exactly what he is, although not in any interesting way. And considering that a 15-year-old girl proves to be the most thoughtful and articulate person in a whole room of childish grownups, this loser doesn’t even deserve center stage.