by Cory Conley · April 16, 2015
Lee Sellers, Connie Sheung, April Mathis, Carolina Sanchez, Jill Shackner,
Annie McNamara | Joan Marcus
Iowa, the magnificent new piece by Jenny Schwartz and Todd Almond at Playwrights Horizons, is a rare creature: a play with music that feels neither like a play nor a musical. It’s much more like a collage, with songs and vignettes glued together but somehow cohering into a gorgeous big picture.
At least I found it gorgeous; it’s surely not for everyone. The dialogue unfolds with seemingly no direction, and the songs are mostly unrhymed without recognizable “hooks.” The two central characters--- a manic mother and her dour teenage daughter--- are archetypes, not fully-fleshed humans with real emotional lives. There’s seemingly no end to the zaniness, and often the show is operating at such a high pitch that, if your ears are so inclined, it may sound shrill. Also: there’s a man in a pony costume who arrives to croon out a love ballad that involves--- yes--- audience participation. And there’s a parade of ethnically diverse Nancy Drews, followed later by a pack of sister wives.
But I suggest you just go with the (crazy) flow. Much like Caryl Churchill or Charles Mee, Schwartz and Almond are intent on using the theatrical form to ask larger questions. And after a while, Iowa starts to add up to a fascinating survey of modern neuroses, beginning with internet dating and ending with that oldest of American obsessions: what it means to re-invent yourself.
Sandy, see, is a middle-aged single mom who just met a man named Roger on Facebook. Via video chat, she introduces him to her 14 year-old daughter Becca, and then announces that they’ll be “moving to Ohio” to be with him. (“Iowa, actually,” corrects Roger, the first of many geographic jokes in the play.) Eventually they make it to the midwest. And that’s about it, in terms of describable plot.
But as always, the real heart of Iowa is in the journey. We follow Becca to school, where she encounters a sad, defensive cheerleader (“So I’m a cheerleader. So my legs are freakin’ toned. So what?”), and where she bids farewell to her math teacher who has a secret of his own. Along the way are the Nancy Drews, the Pony, and a random woman who asks us to help her with her chaotic thoughts (“How worried should I be about a credit check? About HPV? About how I behaved in the 90’s?”)
Iowa, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll and featuring strong performances from Jill Shackner (Becca) and Karyn Quackenbush (Sandy), seems unlikely to find a wide audience. But for my money, it makes as strong an argument for the continued vitality of theater as can be currently found on a New York stage. It could never, for instance, be made into a movie, because it’s just too weird. That may sound like an odd compliment, but honestly, I wish I could say it more often.