Discovering why a rockabilly singer is in the middle of a play about mass-murdering brothers in the American Revolution is one of many delights in Dan Dietz's genius play 'Americamisfit'
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., Nov. 4, 2005
The Off Center, through Nov. 19
Running Time: 2 hrs, 20 min
He has a long, thin, pink tie and a single curl of dark hair lying languorously on his forehead. He has a guitar slung across his back and a glint and gleam in his eyes. When he's about to sing, his arms extend as if he's going to hold you, embrace you, maybe dance with you, maybe make love to you. He is, in a phrase, so cool. His name is Rockabilly Boy, and he's played with utter élan by Jason Newman in this Equity production from Salvage Vanguard Theater.
So what's this symbol of the birth pangs of rock doing in the middle of this story about two mass-murdering brothers, Little Harpe and Big Harpe, in the time of the American Revolution? Well, discovering why is one of the many delights of Dan Dietz's genius play, directed by SVT Artistic Director Jason Neulander. Included are Chase Staggs' set, dominated by a massive painting of pristine wilderness that transforms into a prom queen's stage and a house on fire; Diana Duecker's rich and varied lights that shift and move to accompany every nuance of the action; Laura Cannon's costumes, which stretch ably across 200 years of history; and Neulander's sound design, which somehow manages to vibrate the building, yet never overwhelms. There isn't much to the story the Harpe brothers, two mass-murdering Tory loyalists, want to bring about a counterrevolution and expose the American "democracy" for the disabled monarchy it is but Dietz's play is more about ideas than story, and he is ably assisted in presenting them, most notably by Brent Werzner, who plays Big Harpe as a brooding stone of a man, and by Robert Pierson, who manages to play multiple characters, including Robert E. Lee, Henry Ford, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Ronald Reagan, as entirely distinct entities. While I'd really like to say it's a perfect production, I can't. Sometimes the tempo is deadly slow, sometimes the acting is self-indulgent in the extreme, and sometimes the staging is strangely flat. But none of this ultimately stands in the way of Dietz's ambitious examination of our national zeitgeist.
Toward the beginning of the story, Little Harpe, the brains of the duo, explains to Big Harpe, the brawn, why he should be happy. On its surface, Little's explanation is convoluted, but in the final analysis and Little is nothing if not analytical it makes frightening sense. The American Revolution established a dichotomy of everyday existence: One could either live in fear, or one could become a predator, the latter being the obviously preferable state. Not that I would ever suggest that our current government wishes to establish a climate of fear and, thus, make us into a nation of predators, but it's not a long jump, hop, or skip, as the case may be, to see the parallels between what Little describes and what's happening right now. Little more can be asked of a play, or a production, than to allow us to see the present in the glaringly bright and obvious light of the past.