In the uneven new musical Take Me America, running as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival, apathetic INS agents try to sift out the terrorists and liars among nine desperate asylum seekers. Inspired by the documentary Well-Founded Fear, the piece details the stories behind the paperwork filed by people wanting to enter the land of the free. But with little plot development beyond the catchy titular song and some soapy melodramas offered as harrowing life stories, the piece devolves into a collection of anecdotal, runaway tales.
Within this flimsy narrative, the asylum seekers end up taking a backseat to the INS agents. One dissatisfied agent, for example, is spurred onto the path of self-discovery after resisting an asylum seeker’s sexual advance. Usually, the agents’ narcissism is played for laughs, but here we’re expected to sympathize with an agent’s crisis over a woman willing to do anything to prevent her husband’s return to a Chinese prison.
Actress Jan Leslie Harding injects the piece with some life as INS agent Martha Louise. Equal parts Donna Murphy and Mink Stole, her crotchety mannerisms and lively facial twitches embody her character’s contradictions a person bored with her job, but who can’t afford to not care. Without Harding, though, Take Me America would leave its audience seeking another kind of asylum.