Myth America

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 17, 2007

The idea of Myth America is to get a look at our country as seen through the eyes of 11 different, idiosyncratic playwrights. Stephen Wargo, the conceiver and curator of this show, has grafted the 14 short plays contributed by these authors into a kind of theatrical collage.

Matthew Paul Olmos and Saviana Stanescu look at America as Melting Pot, and their pieces (respectively, "La Mula" and "Flagstories") wound up interesting me the most. Olmos tells a sad, possibly cautionary tale about a young Latin American woman who hooks up with some dangerous characters to make her way into the United States, with the hopes of bringing her son to join her once she's saved enough money. Stanescu gives us two immigrants, one from the Dominican Republic, the other from Moldova, who both find that the American Dream is substantially less dreamy than they'd been led to believe. An undercurrent in both pieces is the idea, still so powerful, that America is a Land of Opportunity, notwithstanding all that's wrong with it: Olmos and Stanescu explore this paradox incisively.

Brian Dykstra's "Peetie and E" is immediately identifiable as one of his trademark rants against The Man. His targets here are, specifically, the American education system, American pharmaceutical companies, and Organized Religion. THe piece ends with a rap whose refrain is "What Would Jesus Do?" Also despairing about the state of our Union at the moment is Jason Grote, whose "Prometheus Rendered" attacks the interrogation tactics used against suspected terrorists.

Most of the other elements comprising this "collage" take a less aggressively critical (and often quite comical) view. Ian Cohen looks at the malaise of our post-Sopranos culture in two pieces, while Lloyd Suh looks at two very different family dynamics in his offerings. Julien Schwab has a good idea in "Stats," about a man who thinks he controls everything that happens to his favorite baseball team just by the way he tips his cap or chooses his seat—this seems to me to be a very American idea, and I was disappointed that the concept sort of fizzled out. Rachel Axler's "Joe Goes Shopping" is a too-obvious satire of consumerism, but her other piece, "Marilyns," is a pointed look at celebrity worship from both ends.

The three most famous contributors (billed—a little offensively from where I stand—in larger type on the show's postcards) are Arthur Kopit, Theresa Rebeck, and Israel Horovitz. The contributions of the first two, both brief monologues, were incomprehensible to me; Horovitz's piece, "Two Toscas," brings Noises Off to an opera house in an attempt to celebrate America's diversity while exposing another Grand Old Attribute of the USA, mainly, our intolerance for anybody different from ourselves. It's a good idea, and a nice capper to the evening, but the writing actually felt a bit clumsy to me and the busy staging overplays its hand.

A word about the direction: it's by Nicholas Cotz and Adam Fitzgerald, and it's generally effective, but it's hampered by one of Wargo's guiding principles—to break down barriers between actors and audience members—as implemented here, by transforming TBG's long narrow mainstage into theatre-in-the-round. The physical space just isn't conducive to the concept, and it makes for weird blocking decisions throughout.

One thing Wargo does here that's admirable is to intercut many of the plays, so that instead of Myth America just feeling like a succession of one-acts, it actually approaches the collage that it aspires to being. I'd have liked even more of a mix-up. And it might have said something positive about America if the multi-ethnic cast had been used less specifically ethnically: why do the two African American actors get the rap? why don't the Middle-Eastern and Asian American actors get to play characters besides the ones written specifically for their heritages? Stanescu and Olmos are right about our Melting Pot, no matter how broken it might sometimes seem. The stage is a great place to honor this powerful idea at the center of our shared American experience.

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