In Melissa James Gibson’s What Rhymes With America, director Daniel Aukin crashes Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s fiery virtuosity headlong into a backdrop of quirky Caucasians. True Blood‘s Chris Bauer heads up an assortment of offbeat angst-ers struggling to connect and largely failing (on Laura Jellinek’s set, also predominantly white). But in Randolph’s hands, Gibson’s story, ready-made for a touching Tom McCarthy film (that’s a compliment), gets blown up into a sharp commentary on whiteness and repression.
The play ostensibly concerns Hank (Bauer), a recently divorced, unemployed, and heartbroken economics professor. He negotiates these unpleasant paradigms with his daughter Marlene (Aimee Carrero) through the front door of the place he once lived. (Mom, who never appears in the play, has forbidden her from opening the door to him.) When Hank visits Marlene in the hospital where she volunteers, he meets Lydia (Seana Kofoed), a woman who, as her father dies, asks Marlene to read a handwritten note to him. Hank and Lydia tentatively begin dating.
In the meantime, Hank works as a supernumerary at the local opera house, going on frequent cigarette breaks with Sheryl (Randolph), both clad in cheesy Egyptian or Wagnerian costume. Instead of merely assisting Hank’s reboot like some Oprah-type, Sheryl senses her bond with Hank, and in several multi-layered scenes, she rides a dramatic cavalry toward his heavily defended heart. Her tactics include an intense “practice” makeout session (he doesn’t get it), a demonstration of her love of enjambment (he then uses the technique in a poem for Lydia), and a technically dazzling scene in which Randolph plays Sheryl as she re-creates a failed Lady Macbeth audition. She must also convey that Sheryl’s performance, though brilliant, takes an attitudinal spin on the character that might have cost her the role. Randolph nails everything.
Later, Sheryl has her own catharsis, when during The Ring Cycle she realizes that she, amid all the Siegfrieds and Brünnhildes, deserves the ring herself, storms center stage to demand it, and exits. Funny, human, heartbreaking, impeccably performed—the character may not get the guy, but Randolph gets the gold.