By Caroline Cunfer
Iowa at Playwrights Horizons takes the shape of a modern mosaic crafted from zany pieces that just don’t fit together. The musical play, with music by Todd Almond and lyrics by Almond and Jenny Schwartz, is an absurdist and audacious production that ultimately leads the audience asking themselves “what happened?”
Iowa (billed as iOW@) begins as mother Sandy (Karyn Quackenbush) tells her daughter, Becca, a fine Jill Shackner who at moments nails the stubborn and excitable authenticity of a 14 year-old, that they are moving to Iowa to live with her cyber-boyfriend, Roger. Their estranged conversation unravels as Sandy simultaneously skypes with Roger, who loudly interjects from the computer screen to interrupt Sandy’s unbridled monologue.
Playwright Jenny Schwartz succeeds in conveying a frenzied state of mayhem, her frantic monologues artfully written and riddled with spontaneity, wit, and humorous attempts at internet lingo. But the subject matter is often bold, relatively offensive, and reminiscent of cringe-worthy black cards from Cards Against Humanity that straddle the fine line between humorous and highly insulting.
“Should I be worried? Hashtag,” Sandy says as she contemplates whether or not burnt food causes cancer. Her monologue unwinds in the style of “If you Give a Mouse a Cookie,” one buzzword prompting a round-a-bout new train of thought that adds to her highly un-PC soliloquy (Oh, my burqa arrived from Amazon!…Do I have to wear my becca (burqa) when I spin?”)
But other than the understanding that Becca and her mother will be moving to Iowa, the rest of this musical play is anything but cohesive and comprehensible. Other characters include cheerleaders, a singing pony, a cult of multi-ethnic Nancy Drews, and sister wives in matching pastel dresses. And while Magritte may succeed in creating a a masterpiece from a mismatched collection of objects, Iowa‘s bizarre grab-bag does not resonate. It’s so overwhelmingly difficult to discern a plot or a meaning behind the noise that one gives up from exhaustion.
That haphazardness of “Iowa” verges on experimental theatre, or perhaps it blatantly is. Schwartz places the audience in a state of confusion so disorienting that I questioned whether or not I was actually conscious. And while this whirling state of chaos may be the intent of the show, it was not an enjoyable state to be in.
Schwartz’s knack for clever dialogue does often shine through the mayhem, a highlight being her clever references to Nancy Drew that drew a giggle from those as devoted to the titian-blonde teenage detective as young Becca is: “Later ‘gator. Off to the haunted mansion,” “Is it true about the moss-covered mansion?” “Celebrity’s a bee-yotch. And Ned won’t leave me alone!”
Another diamond in-the-rough is the gorgeous set by Dane Laffrey that is exposed at the end of the play when Sandy and Becca finally arrive in Iowa. The fields and farmhouse à la Bridges of Madison Country appear to jump out of the backdrop as the gorgeous sky changes from vivid turquoise and lime, to blue and yellow, to purple and magenta (spectacular lighting by Tyler Micoleau.)
Perhaps “Iowa” is a disorienting commentary on the plight of modernity and the fact that instead of being progressive, what we consider to be advancements are actually regressive and backwards. As well as the fact that we are losing the ability to effectively communicate and connect with others, because “Iowa” certainly already has (distraught face.)
Caroline Cunfer is the theater/books editor. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.