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A CurtainUp Review

Sorry. . .I thought I had something to say, but I don't.— Roger
Jill Shackner and Karyn Quackenbush.(Photo by Joan Marcus)
Somewhere in the midst of watching the tedious mess that is Iowa, it occurred to me that multiple people had signed off on the final presentation of this work. More than one person had somehow decided that this was funny, challenging, and poignant, and judging by Jenny Schwartz's background — her 2008 play God's Ear announcing her as a major upcoming force in live theater— it would seem like a reasonable assumption. But if anything's clear (and there isn't much) about Schwartz's newest work, it's that even talented playwrights can run into trouble when they try to be too clever by half.

Iowa(sort of) tells the tale of Becca (Jill Shackner), a bright and disaffected fourteen year old surrounded by strange and bizarre people —like her single mother Sandy (Karyn Quackenbush), who has been proposed to by Facebook beau Roger (Lee Sellars) and has consequently decided to pull up stakes and move to Iowa. Sandy explains why she needs to do this, along with a whole lot of other things, during an interminable opening scene in which she laments her lack of a pony (which obligingly dances across the stage at precisely that moment), her inability to pay her debts ("guess I need to go back to stripping!" she brightly announces), and her undying love for a man whose name she continually forgets. That's a pro blem she has with many other people, including her daughter Becca, variously named "Book-a" and "Burqa."Becca's reaction is. . .bemusement. And it all gets worse when she later confronts her high school math teacher Mr. Hill (also played by Sellars) about the situation and her own previously unspoken love for him, aided by four different multicultural (as we are told) versions of Nancy Drew.

And so on. Summarizing more of the plot is kind of a pointless exercise, since clearly the plot isn't intended to be the thing here. The "musical" (there are songs, but they really feel more tacked on than essential to the production) is trying to represent some larger surrealist message, perhaps about the absurdity of everyday life, or it's trying to be staggeringly clever. But the show fails to send any message at all. To be clever it has to be, well, clever, not painfully obvious and grating in its execution, like a bad graduate workshop's mashup of Ionesco and Glee.

Iowa also needs not to be clever in the exact same way—with almost every character, regardless of internal differences, getting his or her chance to do the same sort of extended rant filled with pop culture references, absurd non-sequiturs and bizarre confessions. After about the third one of these I started to suspect we were really just watching Schwartz jumping into each character to make the same tired points (such as they were), and the result was far from convincing.

I don't know how much to blame director Ken Rus Schmoll for the terrible pacing; my sense is that he's doing what he can with what he's got, as are the actors. Shackner is particularly good as Becca, the only semi-normal character of the bunch. Kolette Tetlow puts in a good turn as the young Becca as well. In fact, the interaction between them at the end of the show seems to be leading towards something potentially poignant…right before some unfunny joke breaks the mood, just in time to save us from connecting with the characters. And that's the ultimate problem with Iowa: It doesn't know what its message is, or if it has one at all, and it makes the whole experience pretty pointless. When Roger says "Sorry. . .I thought I had something to say, but I don't," it's hard not to feel like Schwartz could have said much the same thing about the entire exercise.

Playwright: Jenny Schwartz
Music: Todd Almond
Director: Ken Rus Schmoll
Cast: Cindy Cheung (Liz), April Matthis (Nancy Drew), Annie McNamara (Cheerleader), Karyn Quackenbush (Sandy), Carolina Sanchez (Amanda), Lee Sellars (Roger/Jim/Mr. Hill/Pony), Jill Shackner (Becca), Kolette Tetlow (Child/Younger Becca)
Musicians: Brian Ellingsen (Bass), Sarah Haines (Viola), J. Oconer Navarro (Piano)
Scenic Design: Dane Laffrey
Costume Design: Arnulfo Maldonado
Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design: Daniel Kluger
Musical Director: J. Oconer Navarro
Running time: Ninety-five minutes
Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd St., (212) 564-1235
From 3/20/15 to 5/10/15, opening 4/13/15
Tuesday-Saturday @ 7:30 p.m., Sunday @ 7 p.m., Saturday-Sunday @ 2 p.m.
Tickets: $60 general admission, $75 premium
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on April 18th performance
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