Friday, April 3, 2015

Iowa ***

Playwright Jenny Schwartz combines a quirky sensibility with a marvelous facility for language. Her characters speak in riffs and arias. When she is at her best (God’s Ear), the results are wonderful, but on an off-day (Somewhere Fun), they can be dreadful. While her new absurdist comedy with music, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, does not reach the heights of “God’s Ear,” it has some very good moments. Becca (Jill Shackner) is a 14-year-old who must abruptly leave her high school to move to Iowa, where her mother Sandy’s (the hilarious Karen Quackenbush) Facebook fiancĂ© Roger (Lee Sellars) lives. After an opening song by a child (Kolette Tetlow) whose identity is not immediately revealed, there are about 20 minutes before we hear the next song. Fortunately, this time is mostly filled by a virtually non-stop wacky monologue by Sandy. I was almost sorry when it ended and the music resumed. Early on we meet Becca’s sole friend Amanda (Carolina Sanchez), a misunderstood cheerleader (Annie McNamara), four versions of Nancy Drew including one who is African-American (April Matthis), Becca’s remote father Jim (Sellars again) and his pregnant girlfriend Liz (CIndy Cheung), Becca’s math teacher Mr. Hill, on whom she has a crush (Sellars once more) and a randy singing pony (Sellars yet again). The frequency and importance of the songs (music by Todd Almond, lyrics by Almond and Schwartz) picks up as the play progresses. A trio of piano, viola and bass produces a lovely sound soft enough to avoid the need to mic the singers. About 2/3 of the way through the play, Becca and Sandy reach Iowa. The mood abruptly shifts and, for me, the play lost much of its vitality. I did not care for the Iowa scenes, but they did not seriously diminish my appreciation for what came before. The scenic design by Dane Laffrey is simple but effective. Arnulfo Maldonado’s costumes are delightful. Ken Rus Schmoll’s direction is assured. Schwartz has an original voice and it was good to see her work again. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes, no intermission.

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