Monday, July 3, 2017

Williamstown Theatre Season Openers: The Model American and The Roommate

Hiram Delgado and Han Jonghoon in The Model American at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

Mandy Greenfield’s tenure as artistic director at the Williamstown Theatre Festival has been marked by a turn away from revivals of classic American (and European) plays to a focus on new work: this year, like last, Greenfield has reserved only one slot for an established play, and it’s Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, from 2004. (Last season it was Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo.) The attention to up-and-coming playwrights is theoretically exciting, but the choices for season openers in both spaces, the mainstage and the intimate Nikos Stage, are questionable, to say the least.

The Model American (Nikos Stage), written by Jason Kim, is a dozen ideas, more or less, in search of a play. The protagonist is Gabriel (Hiram Delgado), a first-generation Latino American who lies on his application for a job at a start-up that markets crafts – but lands a temp job there anyway by appealing to the owner, an African American named Emmett (Maurice Jones) who identifies with Gabriel’s ambition and his outsider’s desperation to get a slice of the American dream. At the end of the week he manages to convince Emmett to hire him full-time and inside of a year has made himself indispensable as Emmett’s assistant, though his ambition and his tendency to overstep make his boss nervous. By this time Gabe has gotten rid of his accent and is dressing better, but he hasn’t stopped lying. His boy friend, Jude (Micah Stock), an aspiring filmmaker from a privileged white Connecticut family, believes that Gabe is running the company – and that his own background is similar to Jude’s.

Several of the opening scenes in the play are promising, especially the one where Gabe and Jude meet for the first time (through a gay hook-up app) and one between Gabe and his roommate, a Korean named Jae Won (Han Johnghoon) who has been trying to live in America to make his recently dead father’s dream come true but who can’t get comfortable here and has decided to go home. Jae Won feels defeated by the way native-born Americans treat him – as a joke – while Gabe is determined to turn himself into one of them. Delgado is very good, Stock (who gave a delightful performance as the cop Woodenshoes in the Broadway revival of The Front Page last fall) is wonderful, and Johnghoon has a magical way of combining sweetness and irony that isn’t quite like anything I’ve seen before.

But Kim doesn’t seem to have figured out what do with Emmett. When he interviews Gabriel, Emmett comes across as a would-be corporate hard-on who swings a baseball bat when he’s on the phone with clients and craftspeople because he says it throws his energy into hyperdrive. At home he’s sarcastic and impatient with his sister Cora (Sheria Irving), a recovering drug addict who has had a religious conversion and wants him to lend her money to go to seminary. Cora is clearly earnest – so earnest that there isn’t a lot for Irving to play – so his treatment of her comes across as callous and even hypocritical. (Emmett has his own problems with cocaine, which he uses both at home and in the office.) Yet we’re also supposed to read him as a decent guy whose business is based on the idea of doing good in the world by selling authentic crafts by third-world producers, whereas his new business partner, Tina (the gifted Laila Robins, using every acting trick she can think of on an unplayable role), is the driven one, who only cares about money and power. The tension between them is a set-up for Gabe’s betrayal of his mentor so that he can get ahead with Tina, in a long, strained scene in which she – a careful strategist who never gives herself away – suddenly opens up to him and reveals details about her ruined marriage. Then Gabe breaks up with Jude, projecting onto him the qualities he hates in himself. This second scene might not be such a head-scratcher if Gabe’s presentation of himself as a model American required him to mask his homosexuality, but that doesn’t appear to be the case – or if Jude weren’t exactly the kind of well-bred white-bread American Gabriel wants to turn himself into.

By the time Kim has taken us to Gabriel’s naturalization ceremony, where the rest of the cast shows up in the roles of new Americans from various parts of the world, telling their stories, while the judge (Robins) leads them in a satirical abridged version of their oath that blurs much of the text into “yada yada yada” and “blah blah blah” but underscores the parts about bearing arms and defending their country, you’ve figured out that The Model American is a hate letter to America. But it’s not clear what the specific target for that hatred is, since Kim has thrown in everything but the kitchen sink. Moreover, Danny Sharron has staged the play awkwardly, on an unappetizing set by Winston Chin that seems designed to make Emmett’s office, where most of it takes place, look so anonymous and low-rent that every time a character wanders into it (Jude, Jai Won) and is knocked out by how impressive it is, you wonder what’s wrong with his eyesight.

S. Epatha Merkerson and Jane Kaczmarek in The Roommate at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

The look of The Roommate (mainstage), with a set by Dane Laffrey, is fine, and there’s nothing wrong with Mike Donahue’s staging. The problem is purely the play itself, by Jen Silverman: it makes absolutely no sense. S. Epatha Merkerson plays Sharon, an Iowa City divorcee whose overprotective attitude toward her son keeps him at a distance. (He now resides in Brooklyn.) Sharon has opted to take in a roommate, and Robyn (Jane Kaczmarek), a gay vegan from the Bronx, is it – though Sharon appears to know so little about her when she appears that you wonder what they could have discussed in the phone interview before Robyn moved in. Sharon is good-natured and friendly, Robyn guarded and secretive, but within a week they’ve bonded by getting high together (Sharon’s first time smoking weed). When Sharon gets curious enough to break into one of Robyn’s unpacked boxes and discovers dozens of driver’s licenses with different names and Robyn admits that she’s a scam artist, Sharon is so intrigued that she persuades her new roomie to show her how it’s done. Within a month they’re in business together – several businesses, in fact: Sharon is selling Robyn’s home-grown marijuana to the other women in her book club.

The play isn’t (mostly) a comedy and it isn’t absurdist, so the twists are bewildering. Kaczmarek has some good moments and Merkerson makes her lines sound so natural that she practically seems to be improvising them. She’s a marvelous actress, but in some way the depth of her realism makes the play around her feel even more implausible. The Model American might be three or four drafts away from being workable, but you can’t imagine a professional company seizing on The Roommate and thinking it was worth producing at all.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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