NEW YORK (AP) — Desperation, poor timing, denial, miscommunication, estrangement, insecurities. All the stuff of comedy — thanks to Melissa James Gibson's gift of quirky, intellectual writing as presented in her inventive new play "What Rhymes With America."
World-premiering off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company, the smart production that opened Wednesday night is filled with thoughtful moments, humor and weird truths. Gibson has a knack for giving her characters increasingly compelling, disjointed dialogue, non-sequiturs and silences.
Director Daniel Aukin has staged many of Gibson's plays in New York, most recently "This," and his compatibility with her writing and intent is on stylish display here. Scenes and dialogue often overlap, reflecting the disparate characters' similar feelings.
Chris Bauer is complex and ingratiating as Hank, a down-on-his luck father in his 40s who, with fiscal imprudence, imploded his marriage of two decades and lost his university job. Gamely working as a silent opera extra, Hank still pines for his almost-ex-wife, Gina (never seen), and tries mightily to rekindle a relationship with his estranged teenage daughter, Marlene (Aimee Carrero, sweet and delicately glum).
With all contact forbidden, Hank nonetheless conducts some earnest, stumbling conversations with Marlene through her closed front door. Bauer, television star of "True Blood" and "The Wire," gives Hank a realistically resigned air, mingling frustration with hope.
Marlene composes and sings dysthymic songs about how messed up the world is, saying flatly that "Far Awayness" is her primary criterion for a college. Yet, while Carrero gives comical readings to teenage self-obsessions, such as "I think my teeth might be going buck," her Marlene also comes across as possibly the most emotionally mature person in this bunch.