All four of the characters in Melissa James Gibson’s What Rhymes with America are striving to believe in something, to trust themselves and their instincts enough to want or to hope for almost anything—but in a world so crushingly ready to disappoint and betray them, it often feels so much safer to try to strip themselves of those desires. They are so yearningly—so terrifyingly—vulnerable, so conscious of their failures both real and imagined, that sometimes they’re just barely getting through a day, an hour, a conversation.
They’re all struggling both to survive and to find their places in financially difficult times, all preoccupied with money: Hank, an economist, has lost his academic funding (or, to be more precise, “binding arbitration is going on,” but either way he’s not getting paid) and raided his estranged wife’s retirement savings. He’s working as an opera supernumerary—a member of the crowd costumed as a Viking or Egyptian—waiting for his real life to magically re-start. Hank’s colleague Sheryl is an actress who chokes at auditions, and she’s unhappy enough that she’s started “doing that thing of telling the truth when people ask me how I am.” (“Don’t do that,” Hank replies. “No one cares how anyone is.”) Marlene, Hank’s sixteen-year-old daughter, is already training herself to be comfortable being average because she already knows how daunting life can be, how there isn’t room for everyone “in the middle of things.” She’s working at a local hospital, saddled with a scary amount of responsibility for an untrained teenager, but her mother’s already working a second job and no one knows where college money is going to come from. Lydia, the daughter of a patient, with whom Hank—who’s shown up at the hospital because he’s desperate to see Marlene, who will only talk to him at her mother’s house through a closed door—strikes up a friendship, has also recently been fired, for calling her supervisor a bitch, and she has to move out of her recently deceased father’s apartment with no clear idea of where to go.
And yet, these people are all also dreamers, and creators: Sheryl dreams of center stage while instead being a silent Valkyrie, Egyptian, or Ring maiden. After getting cut off in a big audition after only seven lines, she re-enacts it for Hank, simultaneously annotating Macbeth and performing it, simultaneously furious at losing this chance and glorying in just being able to do the scene one more time. (The layers in both Gibson’s script and Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s performance are wonderful.) Hank lived for his forecasts and predictions, his version of art; cut off from that world, he finds himself constructing backstories for his anonymous opera extras and writing a poem to Lydia, but he’s too afraid to deliver it at a volume louder than a whisper. Lydia writes unpublished short stories she can only describe in oxymoron (“Words are little fuckers,” she finally concludes). Marlene writes songs and, in one of the piece’s most lyrical monologues, describes her depiction of God in papier-mache for a school project, an object that becomes a touchstone for both her and Lydia; it may be the one thing in Marlene’s life she actually admits being proud of. (And as the object is actually rendered onstage by designer Laura Jellinek, it’s haunting, weird, and beautiful all at once.)
The attempt to pin down meaning, to make language sufficient to the thoughts and emotions one needs to express, is constant throughout this play, for all the characters. Each is constantly defining words, thinking about rhymes, savoring and rejecting words: attempting to grapple with language in a meaningful way to make sense of their world. They want to be precise, to say what they mean and mean what they say, but words are slippery and elusive—and knowledge even more so. “You can’t know things you don’t know,” says Marlene, and Hank contradicts her: “I would argue most of the things we know we don’t know we know.”
It’s significant, I think, in light of that particular theme of the play, that Sheryl’s audition piece comes from Macbeth, a play I’ve always found to be obsessed with the conditionality and the shiftiness of language and what it means to grapple with the weight of both one’s past and one’s future. Hank’s line very much reminds me of Macbeth’s “If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well / It were done quickly.”
This all sounds overly schematic when the parallels are laid forth so straightforwardly, but that’s not the effect at all. Gibson has such a delicate touch with her language and her spiky, fragile characters that the symmetries never feel heavy-handed or forced; instead, we see how these people are both desperate to connect and desperate to escape, similar in ways they aren’t often aware of.
That same delicacy of touch comes through in all the elements of the production: Daniel Aukin’s deft and light-handed direction. All four performances, each heartbreaking in its own way: Chris Bauer as Hank, stolidly insisting his current state of affairs is “temporary”; Seana Kofoed as Lydia, angular and lonely; Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Sheryl, battling against actually losing all hope; and Aimee Carrero, in her Off-Broadway debut as Marlene, stubbornly trying to protect everyone around her. Laura Jellinek’s set, which mixes stark spaces and specific, tactile objects. Everything is handled with elegant economy; even in the piece’s more fanciful or abstract moments, there’s nothing—not a space, a word, a gesture—wasted in either the space or in the prose.
Which makes me think it not at all coincidental that the only time the word “happy” is used in the play, it’s in reference to Gina, Hank’s ex-wife and Marlene’s mother—who doesn’t appear onstage. The piece is being billed as a comedy, and it is often in fact very funny—but it’s also a deeply moving evocation of isolation and despair and woe, and the search for optimism and hope in the midst of all that. “Everybody hates feeling,” Hank tells Sheryl, and, when she replies, “I don’t I like feeling,” he answers, “You’re the only one then.” Everyone here wants to like feeling. They’re just not quite there yet.