Pleasure, Perversion and Pretense: “Dementia Americana”

By Hailey Nuthals, Arts Editor

With “Hamilton” having just won a sweep of Tony Awards, the world is primed and ready for more top-notch plays based off of true historical figures, and “Dementia Americana’s” writers Louis Aquiler and Chris D’Amato produced the perfect script for director Paul Mancini to take advantage of. The Synapse Theater Ensemble’s production of the piece, currently going on as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, is poised perhaps not to overtake the famed musical currently sweeping pop culture, but at least to be a worthy partner in the game.

“Dementia Americana” follows the story of Harry Kendall Thaw (played by D’Amato), the son and heir of Pittsburgh coal baron William Thaw. Harry Thaw, born in 1871, was famed within society at the time as having had bouts of severe mental illness and being a generally uncouth and unpredictable character. Thanks to a monthly allowance of $2,500 (in a time when the average working man made $500 a year), later increased to $8,000 following his father’s death, Thaw had the means to make a lavish fool of himself. He once threw a dinner party for 25 prostitutes in which the dessert course was a diamond necklace wrapped around the stem of a champagne glass. His exploits, adventures, and frightening misdeeds seem like the stuff right out of a story – and so is the premise for the play.

Each event in “Dementia Americana” is promised to be factual, excepting the existence of narrator Rollo May (David Shaw), who is explained away as being a doctor and student under Sigmund Freud, whose practice of psychoanalysis would have just been hitting the world’s awareness at the time of the play. May is purportedly hired to attempt to treat Thaw’s behavior and preserve the family’s good name. It very quickly becomes clear that Thaw is a textbook sociopath, and a dangerous one at that. His fiery romance with actress and chorus-girl Evelyn Nesbit (Kari Buckley) soon leads him to press the dubious woman into marrying him.

Just as in “Hamilton,” Nesbit ends up in far over her head as the female protagonist. Thaw’s obsessive love for her, and his equally obsessive jealousy of famed architect Stanford White (Kenneth Robert Marlo) lead him to ultimately shoot White three times in the head at point blank range, ostensibly for past abuses against Nesbit. The play hinges on the defense Thaw attempts to use in court for his murder trial – “dementia americana,” an (invented) temporary bout of insanity particular to American men whose women – mothers, wives, and daughters – have been wronged by another man. The insanity disappears once the wrong is righted.

In a darkly poignant finale, the parallel between a ridiculous excuse for mental illness and our current political culture is drawn with bold lines. “Dementia Americana” may not exist in the sense of what it was meant to, but is a frighteningly apt term for what the American climate looks like today. Between the ingeniously clever stage setup, flawless scene transitions, and utterly incredible acting, the production becomes a fantastical event. It’s a comical, farcical commentary, and succeeds in every aspect.  Those who could be labeled as suffering from “dementia americana,” and those who couldn’t, would do well to watch it.

“Dementia Americana” is running at the Teatro Latea at 107 Suffolk Street as part of the New York International Fringe Festval until the 26th of August. Find tickets and more information here.

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